“Happy Christmas”. I’ve said it a thousand times. But I wonder if it’s a strange thing for a Christian to wish. The story I celebrate is filled with both joy and pain. Joy. For a Saviour is born. Pain. For his birth is met with the murder of Bethlehem’s infant boys, and the terrified flight of Jesus’ family to Egypt.
Psychologists tell us that there are two levels to happiness. At one level happiness is the experience of pleasurable feelings. This is what I mean when I wish my friends a happy Christmas. I am hoping their day will be free from stress, filled with laughter and celebration, an escape from whatever has been burdening them.
This type of happiness is fleeting, dependent on circumstances. It’s what Joseph and Mary must have experienced when Jesus was born, but which just as quickly evaporated when their infant son kept them sleepless, and turned to terror when Herod embarked on his murderous rampage.
But there is a second, deeper sense in which we can speak of happiness, that Sonja Lyubomirsky, a Professor of Psychology at the University of California, describes as “a sense that one’s life is good, meaningful and worthwhile”. This type of happiness exists whether I am feeling good or bad. And it’s this type of happiness I want to reference when I wish people a happy Christmas.
The problem is that I live in a culture that pursues level one happiness but gives less attention to level two. This can be tremendously damaging. Michael Schluter, founder of Britain’s Relationships Foundation, comments: “At a personal level, promoting the maxim that pleasure is good and pain is bad runs the risk of encouraging individualism, selfishness and an unhealthy focus on present experience that can be damaging over the long-term. It can too easily be used to justify risky sexual behaviours, men walking out on their families or the refusal to care for disabled or elderly relatives. It may also encourage the avoidance of any good form of pain in the way of challenge or difficult experience that is necessary for personal development and maturity” (cited in Ross Gittins, The Happy Economist). In other words, the pursuit of pleasant feelings turns us into shallow, self-centred, agents of social and ecological destruction.
The Christmas story speaks of the second, deeper sense of happiness. It tells me that I am part of God’s good creation that Jesus comes to redeem, and this gives life a deeper meaning.
The Old Testament story that forms the prologue to the Christmas story posits a good world created by a good God but corrupted by human sin. The primary manifestations of this corruption are dysfunctional relationships with God, the turn to idolatry as a means of securing blessing; dysfunctional communities, in which violence, injustice and neglect of one another are endemic; and a dysfunctional creation, in which the earth remains abundant, but less hospitable, and its abundance hoarded by the powerful. Yet God does not abandon his creation but determines to redeem it. Jesus is the focal point of this redemption. Through him God begins to reign. He calls humankind back into relationship with their welcoming, forgiving, graceful, wise God; creates a community marked by love, mercy and justice; and calls us back to a proper stewarding of creation. And it is through him that God will finally reign completely over a world that is made new.
This is what it means to say Jesus saves us from our sin, and in doing so he provides us with the framework for happiness in the deeper sense of the word. Life now takes on a deep and rich meaning, that I am a child of God, the recipient of God’s welcome, forgiveness, grace and wisdom; called to work with God in creating a more just, more peaceful , more equitable world; and to care for the creation as the Creator does. It means I refuse to be drawn into the narcissistic pursuit of pleasure in favour of a life well lived.
Interestingly, when psychologists explore what it is that creates this deep happiness they articulate the values embedded in the Christmas story: being invested in relationships; focussing on the wellbeing of others; doing things because they have value in and of themself rather than being a means to some other end; living hopefully and thankfully; adjusting our expectations of life rather than inflating our aspirations.
So this year when I wish people a happy Christmas, this is what I will mean. I wish you the deep happiness that comes from knowing and being known by your Creator; that comes from living thankfully, acting hopefully, and loving lavishly as you join your God in creating a world where injustice yields to justice, violence yields to peace, greed yields to generosity; and that sees you cherish this planet the Creator has given you. Have a very happy Christmas.
Originally written for Baptist World Aid Australia’s Be Change magazine. To read more from this mag click here.