What brings you joy at Christmas? Being with family? Enjoying the delight of children as they anticipate visits with Santa and their exuberance on Christmas morning? Maybe it’s the special treats that we reserve solely for Christmas. In our family those include Chris’s awesome double-barreled eggnog, coconut cake, chocolate covered cherries, and those heavenly, soft peppermint sticks! In my memory, there is nothing that quite compares to the joy of Christmas morning. Do you remember that hopeful quiver in the pit of your stomach when you went to bed on Christmas Eve and woke up too early on Christmas morning? Just a few years ago, my son, who is now 31, confessed to me that he still gets that tremble of Christmas excitement! Do you?
While I can still remember the childhood emotions of Christmas morning, I don’t know if I have ever experienced such a range of emotions in such rapid succession as the shepherds must have felt on that first Christmas morning:
- Tedium: I’ve never been a shepherd, but I have heard my son—who is a police officer—describe the tedium of keeping watch on a slow night.
- Surprise at the sudden appearance of a stranger among them.
- Terror as the angel approached and began to speak.
- Disorientation as the glory of the Lord enveloped them.
- Fear as they realized who this messenger was and wondered if they would survive the encounter.
- Mistrust as the angel spoke his first words, “Do not be afraid.”
- Disbelief as he announce “I bring you good news of great joy”
- Skepticism at the words “for all the people.”
After all, who ever brought good news to a shepherd? Who ever spoke to a shepherd at all? The shepherds of Israel-Palestine are the Bedouins, an Arabic-speaking nomadic people. For millennia, they have inhabited the deserts of Judea. To this day, they maintain a semi-nomadic lifestyle, living in encampments consisting of tents, trailers, and corrugated tin lean-tos. Neither Israelis nor Palestinians, they fall through the cracks of society. They always have fallen through the cracks of society. So I imagine that the angel’s message “good news of great joy for all the people” might have fallen on skeptical ears.
But their terror turned quickly to joy, haste, and an urgent sense of curiosity—maybe even a hopeful quiver in the pit of their stomachs—at the angel’s next words: “to you is born . . . a Savior. . . . This will be a sign for you: you will find a child . . . lying in a manger.” With the delivery of this good news, the angel’s words became personal. This good news is great joy for all the people, and “all” includes you shepherds who have always been left out, left behind, and left alone.
Who is this child upon whose birth the angels of God announce first and foremost to those who have always been last, least, and lowest? We get our first hint in the words of Mary as she sings about the meaning and significance of the child she has conceived:
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. . . . He has . . . lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things.
And we see his identity and his identification with the last, least, and lowest develop and unfold throughout the gospels in his preaching, teaching and healing:
- As he keeps company with the outcasts of society
- As he touches the untouchable
- As he feeds the hungry and commands us to do the same
- As he welcomes the unwelcome
- As he calls the most unlikely disciples to follow him
It is not only what Jesus does for the last, least, and lowest that makes him who he is, but how he does it, with deep compassion. Jesus’ compassion for those whom he heals, and feeds, and comforts is a deeply felt, gut-wrenching compassion that is rooted in his ability to empathize with—to feel the pain, the hunger, and the grief—of those to whom he ministers. Jesus’ compassion is rooted in his felt sense of others’ suffering, and it results in his willingness to take on the suffering of humankind and carry it to the cross.
As a community that bears witness to the “Good news of great joy for all the people” we are called to cultivate sympathetic joy. Just as compassion is to share in the suffering of others, so sympathetic joy is to share in others’ joy.
There is a beautiful word in the Pali language for sympathetic joy: mudita. Mudita is to feel happy for other peoples’ happiness. It is one of four so-called “heavenly abodes” those mental states that cultivate an expansive and inclusive orientation toward the world. Other “heavenly abodes” include love, compassion, and equanimity, or peace and calmness in our minds.
Of the four “heavenly abodes” mudita can be the most difficult to cultivate because it requires us to overcome many of our most pernicious and persistent bad habits.
- To feel joy for others’ joy, we have to overcome our fear that what is good for others might be bad for us. If we fear that others can get more only if we get less then we operate out of an orientation of scarceness.
- Mudita demands that we overcome our envy of others’ good fortune. If we are envious we operate out of an orientation of comparing ourselves and our lives to others.
- To feel joy for others’ joy, we have to overcome our judgment of others for not deserving their good fortune.
Mudita is what you feel when your son tells you he made it into the police academy or made the soccer team. Mudita is what you feel when your daughter tells you she just won a scholarship or got into the college of her choice. Mudita is what you feel when your daughter-in-law passes the bar exam on her first try or lands that dream job. Mudita is that “Oh, I’m so happy for you!” feeling when anyone you love has good fortune, a good outcome, or good news to share.
Our calling as a community that bears witness to the good news of the Christ child is to respond with sympathetic joy
- when outcasts of society are allowed in
- when the untouchable come within reach
- when the hungry are filled with good things
- when the unwelcome are welcomed among us
- and when even the most unlikely disciples answer the call to follow Christ
When we can respond to good news for the last, least, and lowest with a feeling of sympathetic joy, that intake of breath—“Oh, I’m so happy for you!”—or that leap of heart that we feel for the good fortune of our best beloveds, then we are operating out of an orientation of peace, love, and compassion. Christmas joy is that hopeful quiver that says there is enough and more than enough for all. May we who bear witness to the Christ child carry this good news of great joy for all with generous and expansive hearts. Amen.