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“But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid. I bring you good news of great joy that will be for all the people.’”
I first heard that Christmas proclamation as a child but remember having serious doubts about the great joy of Christmas by the time I had reached junior high. Even though joy was a dominant theme of the season, it always seemed elusive. I just did not get it because I did not understand the difference between joy and happiness.
Believing the angelic message was universal happiness I liked the idea, but happiness was not a major part of my early Christmases. Due to poverty and poor education, my parents were not able to provide the gifts and trappings of Christmas that I saw evident in other homes. Even though appreciating my parents’ effort, I still did not understand why some people’s Christmases were filled with more joy than mine.
The angel had said great joy for all the people. Wasn’t I a part of all the people?
I was equally aware that I was not alone in experiencing a scaled down Christmas. Because of sickness, alcoholism and divorce, some of my classmates’ families had even worse experiences than I did. All of which left me even more skeptical of the great joy of Christmas.
Later I understood that I had confused happiness with joy. Initially, the shepherds responded to the angel with great fear presuming that maybe judgment awaited them. After assuring them to not be afraid, the angel did not proclaim a wave of happy circumstances for all people.
The angel proclaimed that God’s presence was no longer locked in a box behind a veil, no longer restricted to just one people, but was open and available to all. In fact, God was in a manger wrapped in swaddling clothes.
After their visit to Bethlehem, the shepherds returned to their same primitive circumstances. Their social positions, health or wealth were not improved after the events of that night, but they had heard and seen the good news of great joy, and they were never the same.
Once I better understood the joy of God’s presence and grace, I was amazed at how joyous the Christmas season had become.
One example was the Christmas of 1988 when my family experienced Christmas with great tears because of the death of my wife’s mother. Yet, through our tears, we could not have imagined a better way for her to depart this world than in a season surrounded by the message that God is always with us. Great tears did not prevent the reality of great joy.
Through time, I have come to realize that all my Christmases, even the early ones, were never lacking God’s presence and grace. He had been there in those Christmases in simple and powerful ways.
Joy is truly available for all people, even people like you and me.
Tim Dennis is minister of White Mills Christian Church and president of the White Mills Civic League.