Seeking genuine joy

The pink candle has been lit. The pace quickens as we move closer to the feast. Christmas is coming - oh, the joy.

Except when the rose vestments sometimes just serve as a painful reminder that we are supposed to feel joy, but we don't.

Not only are we fighting from within to feel something we want to feel, we are combatting an entire culture - both secular and religious - that is insistent that this is the season for joy. Maybe we need to look past the bright lights and even past the rose-colored splendor. Maybe we need to remember that Christmas didn't come with the blare of trumpets repeating the sounding joy. It came in a stable, dark and dank. God chose a place of unlikely humility to introduce the very incarnation of joy.

How best to welcome Joy Himself? Bow low in simple humility - really low, where it's damp and stinky. How best to evade Joy? Compete, compare and foster jealousy. Keep paging through those catalogs of beautifully staged "lives." Keep perusing Instagram and watching wistfully what looks like perfectly executed tableaux of warmth and fellowship (but are really just framed and filtered snippets of good). Keep looking longingly through store windows and assuming that if you could just own that - whatever that is - you'd be more loved and more lovable. Keep feeding envy.

Oh, and another thing sure to steal the joy of the season: Somehow tangle the Christmas lights and the Advent candles with the deadlines and the grades of semester's end. That will do it. Push yourself to near exhaustion trying to prove your worth as evidenced by a letter grade and then compare to the letter grades around you, and you have a perfect way to extinguish any and all joy of the season.

Can't relate? Perhaps you've traded the intensity and competition of "finals week" for the corporate ladder, the bonus structure or the more subtle and more insidious competition of women who have no institutional structure by which to compare. They compare workouts, Pinterest-worthy parties, kitchens and, sadly, the achievements of their children. You don't feel joy because joy is not attained by climbing higher and getting bigger in this life. And for goodness sake, the person who feels joy most is not the person who "does Christmas best."

Christmas isn't something we do. It's a gift we receive.

Joy isn't a feeling. It's a conviction. It's a choice. Joy is knowing that Christ came in a most unexpected, dark, and messy way the first time He came. Joy is knowing He will come again to shed light on our dark places, and He doesn't purpose to stand in the harsh, artificial glare of our earthly glory.

We are transformed into joyful beings when we let go of the created structures we've been worshiping and we serve God alone. Until our souls cease striving and instead seek serving, we can't avoid the negative trappings of pride and presumption, competition and comparison. Our good - the things we truly do for the good - is to be ordered to the service of God alone. When those good deeds are directed toward the human accolades they bring, one of two things happens (sometimes one is followed by the other). Either the human praise and the good feelings that come with it offer a fleeting happiness and enough self-conceit to fuel the insatiable desire to be bigger and better, or our best efforts are deemed not good enough either in our own eyes or the eyes of our perceived human judges and the effort brings bitter disappointment.

Joy comes to the soul that orders all "the doing" to the Baby in the manger. We cannot be deceived or tempted away from humility when our productivity at this time of year or any other is focused on serving as God serves. When we look away from the constant barrage of social media and flashing ads and even test scores and GPAs and we contemplate the humility of the manger, the very simplicity of the one life we truly want to emulate, we detach from the self-seeking and the self-praise that rob us of joy. The poor in spirit are the ones who truly share the glory and joy.

You are not good enough. You will never be good enough. But Christ in you? You, detached from the praise of this world and free to join in His glory? So very good. And so very joyful.

Merry Christmas.

Foss, whose website is elizabethfoss.com, is a freelance writer from Northern Virginia.

© Arlington Catholic Herald 2015

@elizabethfoss