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The Joy of Christmas

Updated: Nov 28, 2023

I have always found St. Paul’s Epistle to the Philippians one of his most intriguing. An overarching theme of the letter is joy, wherein we read Paul speaking of joy a seemingly excessive number of times (fourteen times in all of just four chapters – 1:4; 1:18; 1:19; 1:25; 2:2; 2:17; 2:18; 2:28; 2:29; 3:1; 4:1; two times in 4:4; 4:10). The funny thing is, though, that St. Paul is actually in captivity in Rome at the time of his writing Philippians, which makes one wonder…what is there to actually rejoice at when falsely imprisoned?

To help us understand this, let us first define what joy itself is. Generally speaking, joy is the emotion that we feel when we come to possess a particular good. And so we are joyful when our favorite movie comes on television, when we read a good book, or when we eat our favorite food. And a smile comes across our faces when we see our children in the morning or get home from work to see our spouse. Yet again, we are still left with the question of how St. Paul can speak so profusely of joy when it seems as if he has nothing – he does not have his favorite food or book, but is falsely imprisoned for the sake of preaching the Gospel, for the sake of trying to bring the souls most opposed to him to Christ Jesus. And so what is there for him to even rejoice at? It is easy enough for us to be joyful when everything is going smoothly in life, but try being imprisoned and see if that’s still joyful, as that’s when Paul rejoices the most. Everything of Paul’s situation is completely contrary to what the world rejoices at, yet he nonetheless still writes the Epistle that’s nicknamed “The Epistle of Joy”. How can this be?

What St. Paul recognizes while in captivity writing to the Philippians is an entirely different type of joy that we can experience. What Paul has come to realize is that he is the “chosen instrument”, as Jesus refers to him in Acts 9:15. That is, Paul intimately knows that he has been chosen by God for a specific role in salvation history, as all of us are called to play a role. Thus, he understands that his life is not his to live, but his to conform to the will of God. And so hallmark of Paul is that he sees everything under God’s providence – he’s the chosen instrument, so if he’s in prison, then that’s because God wants him in prison. And that’s why it doesn’t matter for Paul if he’s in prison, out of prison, here or there – he’s going to preach the Gospel and bring others to the Church, regardless of the situation. So paradoxically, he sees his imprisonment as a way to advance the Gospel, captivity becoming to him a cause of joy because it avails for the propagation of the Gospel. For as Paul writes in Philippians, the whole Roman Praetorian guard has now heard the Gospel preached, many fellow Christians have been emboldened by his suffering for Jesus, and the Gospel has reached to even some of Caesar’s own household…all because he’s been falsely imprisoned in Rome, all of which would have been otherwise had he not been falsely imprisoned. Thus, Paul rejoices that he’s in captivity for all of the good that it brings about and for the simple fact that, regardless of the situation, he still possesses the ultimate good of Christ crucified.

This distinctly Christian joy of Paul is different from the others joys we feel in life with foods, books, movies, and even loved ones because while earthly joys can come and go, since all of the earthly goods that we rejoice at can come and go, Christian joy is not fleeting, as this is a joy that is rooted in Christ and the salvation that He brings. And so regardless of whether imprisoned or sailing the seas, Paul can always have this Christian joy because he can always have his Lord and Savior. Christianity thus “supernaturalizes” joy, if you will – we are no longer simply joyful at possessing a particular good, such as a movie or a book, but rather because of and in Christ we are always joyful, regardless of the situation, because we have THE good of Christ crucified and His victory over satan, sin, and death. Such joy is characteristic of the Christian life because the Christian can always be joyful, as we have Him Who brings us into right relationship with the Triune God.

Of course, Paul recognizes that this can be a hard life, full of pain and suffering, and so it is not that Christian joy is easy, never to be challenged. Paul himself has to repent of his former murderous life and is eventually stoned, scourged, punched, rejected, bitten by a snake, shipwrecked, and stranded. If anybody knows that life is not easy it is St. Paul, who also needs reassurance from Christ at times throughout his ministry in order to persist. But the point is that we have a joy that endures, that always wins, since even in the midst of pain and suffering, one can still be in covenant relationship with the Triune God through the Incarnate Lord. And how could we not rejoice at such a gift?! As Paul writes in Philippians 4:13, “I can do all things in Him Who strengthens me” – Paul can endure the extremes of earthly life, from peace and prosperity to affliction and destitution, precisely because the source of his strength is not himself, but Jesus, Who enables Paul to take everything in stride and live detached from this earthly word. And so although Paul is in captivity, he’s been touched by God’s grace, so what is there to not rejoice in with the cross of Christ, amidst pain and suffering, deprived of earthly goods? We must always rejoice that salvation from satan, sin, and death is at hand for the faithful!

As the Apostles John writes, “That which was from the beginning, which we have heard, which we have seen with our eyes, which we have looked upon, and our hands have handled, of the word of life: For the life was manifested; and we have seen and do bear witness, and declare unto you the life eternal, which was with the Father, and hath appeared to us: That which we have seen and have heard, we declare unto you, that you also may have fellowship with us, and our fellowship may be with the Father, and with his Son Jesus Christ. And these things we write to you, that you may rejoice, and your joy may be full” (1 John 1:1-4). We have eternal life, fellowship with the Triune God in Christ Jesus, so what is there not to rejoice at? And it all starts, of course, with the humble birth of the Messiah, the crib and the cross being the two greatest manifestations of the love of God for us. And this is the true joy of Christmas!

By Daniel Campbell, Director, St. John Vianney Theological Seminary Lay Division

Image by Freepik

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