It's there alright, but you have to long for it.
A young friend of mine recently asked a startling sort of question: “I don’t mean to be rude, but I don’t get it. Where is the joy in having children? They are born and they are a pain—waking up frequently, needy, demanding. You are exhausted and run down. They might be cute for a bit, but soon after they turn into brats. Then, they are teenagers—and no one claims to enjoy having a teenager. Before long they move out, and even then cause pain and anguish as they make their way in a pagan culture.”
The question itself made me smile: it’s a very good question I think, and I suspect this young friend is closer to getting it than he thinks. And as I reflected on it this morning, I realized it is an especially good question for Christmastime. Without a hint of religious skepticism, we can earnestly ask: Where exactly is the joy in the Christ child?
After all, poor John the Baptist was beheaded on account of this Christ Child. Mary and Joseph suffered shame and great hardship in the birth and upbringing of this Christ Child. Hundreds (or thousands?) of Holy Innocents are slaughtered on account of this Christ Child. Nations rise and fall and the hearts of many are laid bare—all on account of this Christ Child.
And all these things are worth noting—as that friend noted about having children—because if we’ve failed to note them, then we won’t understand the joy.
St. Thomas tells us that joy is an effect of charity:
Summa Theologiae I-II, 28, 1).
So joy is the happiness that arises in us as a result of love—either because we are with the ones whom we love, or because we are aware that their true good is in some way realized. In both cases, joy is a result of a longing that is fulfilled: the longing to be with the beloved, and the longing for the good of the beloved.
Where, then, is the joy in the Christ Child? Simply here: in the Christ Child God-is-with-us—Emmanuel—bringing joy to the world in the first sense. At Christmas the Beloved is now present to us for whom we have “long in stillness" waited. More wonderfully, in the Christ Child we are given a Savior—bringing joy in the second sense—the promise of salvation, the greatest possible good for us.
From this we can conclude two things: first, there is no Christmas joy without first the pain of longing, without first the pangs of love. If we do not desire God—and I mean if we do not really long for Him—then all the gifts and carols and festivities won’t get us to Christmas joy. Instead, we’ll get only emptiness on a full stomach—and we might end up, dare I say it, a little sad.
And here is where the difficulties have their role. Suffering teaches us that this life is not all that there is—and that this life is not even, with all of its attendant glories, a thing worth desiring for its own sake. It is in the deprivation of the senses that we learn to taste with another sense—the sense that knows how to be thirsty for God.
So Christmas joy requires the purgative way. The contradictions aren’t an obstacle to joy—they are in fact the only way through to joy.
The second thing we can conclude is that this purgative way is also the secret to the joy of having children. All those difficulties so apparent to one who has not yet had children—those same difficulties purify the self-centered love we have at the beginning. It’s fair to say we haven’t fully loved our children
until it has been difficult. And the more we learn to love—the more we are able to simply enjoy them—to take joy in their presence, as they are meant to be enjoyed.
In a strange way, then, the analogy with the Christ child is even more stunning. Our children don’t just bring us joy because we love them—they bring us joy because they teach us to love. And in this sense they are our saviors: not because they are divine—but because in being selfish and needy and demanding they rescue us from the agony of our narcissism.
As the French novelist Léon Bloy wrote: “The only real sadness, the only real failure, the only great tragedy in life, is not to become a saint.” The joy of the Christ Child then—the joy of our own children—is the joy of the opportunity to escape such a fate. Joy to the world, indeed.
Catherine Ruth Pakalukis an Assistant Professor of Economics at Ave Maria University, a Faculty Research Fellow at the Stein Center for Social Research, and a Senior Fellow in Economics at the Austin Institute for the Study of Family and Culture. Her research is focused in the areas of demography, gender, family studies, and the economics of education and religion. She also works on the interpretation and history of Catholic social thought. Dr. Pakaluk earned her doctorate in economics at Harvard University (2010). She lives in Ave Maria, Florida with her husband Michael and seven children.