The Christmas Gift of Happiness

21 Dec 2023

City Compass, St Mary’s Cathedral, Sydney, 21 December 2023

Only four sleeps till Christmas or three for those attending the Midnight Mass. Three or four sleeps till we receive the greatest ever gift. What shall we call it? The Prophet Isaiah names it עִמָּנוּאֵל Emmanu-ēl, God-with-us (Isa 7:14; 8:8). But what kind of God is this God with us? A few verses later Isaiah gives us more names: פֶּלֶא יוֹעֵץ‎ אֵל גִּבּוֹר אֲבִיעַד שַׂר־שָׁלוֹם‎  Pe-leʾ yōʿēṣ  ʾēl gībbōr  ʾáḇīʿaḏ  śar-šālōm, Wonder Counsellor, Almighty God, Everlasting Father, Prince of Peace (Isa 9:5). Matthew echoes Isaiah’s name Emmanuel and adds Jesus or God-saves, Messiah, Son of David and Son of Abraham, From the Holy Spirit, infant King of the Jews and Shepherd of Israel (Mt 1:1,16,18,20,21,22-23; 2:2,6). In his account of the Annunciation, Luke names Him Jesus, Son of the Most High and New David (Lk 1:31-32); at the Visitation, Blessed Fruit and My Lord (Lk 1:42-43); at the Nativity, Saviour-Messiah-Lord (Lk 2:11); and at the Presentation in the Temple Light and Glory (Lk 2:31-32). Finally, John begins his Gospel with the names Logos or God-speak, God from God, Light from Light, Word-made-flesh and Splendour-of-the-Father, Life-for-the-dead, Grace-upon-grace, the Only-begotten One (Jn 1:1-18). The Babe of Bethlehem truly has an extraordinary list of names!

Were it a royal baptism, wedding or funeral, we’d have quite a task listing all those Christmas names—let alone any other names He accumulated during His life or the two thousand years since! But the Christmas names aren’t just a fancy catalogue for a king: they tell us of God’s unshakable love for each of us. Not just an ‘In the beginning’ love, but a relentless, unending love. A love so great it continues to be poured out every year and in every place, in our time and our space, even when we are resisting it or ignoring it. A love expressed not just in words but in The-Word-made-flesh, the One who bridges the human and the divine, God come to meet us face to face. The God-Boy with so many names is above all Jesus, which means God saves, and so our Christmas present is above all salvation, re-union with God through Christ.

Yet the present, like the name, is a many layered one. Like every true present, it’s about making us happy: “I have come that you might have life, life to the full” (Jn 10:10). The Baby Jesus and the grown man are a living, breathing compass for happiness, an operation manual for running that most beautiful but complicated piece of equipment—the human person—written by the One who knows and loves us best, the Manufacturer.

So, the compass is Jesus, which is why we ask ourselves so often, “What would Jesus do?” But can’t He be a bit more specific? Well, He was. Two thousand years ago, not in a lecture theatre but on a mountain top, He articulated the secret to happiness. His cathedra was a rock from which He could teach and be heard. He taught “with authority”. And “at length”. The course began with the unit goals: it was to make disciples—well-formed, enthusiastic, magnetic disciples, “salt of the earth and light to the world”. Such disciples, He went on to explain, would be steadfast in persecution, more righteous than many religious leaders of the day, unmaterialistic, peaceable, chaste and faithful. They would be truthful, just and merciful, humble and prayerful. They would be confident, obedient, fruitful, non-judgmental but discerning. They would be forgiving and loving, godlike or godward.[1] Over a series of several lessons—condensed for us as The Sermon on the Mount—Jesus illuminated what each of these virtues might mean in practice, with stories and further explanations.

At various points in His Happiness 101 course, Jesus says, “You’ve heard it said of old that ABC, but get ready for something new. You grew up thinking this way, but what if we turned that on its head? The culture says XYZ, but I say to you…”. To take a reference from Master Yoda of the Star Wars films, He needed them to “unlearn what they had learned.” Now, this idea is not to be confused with the University of Sydney’s awful marketing slogan: “Unlearn Truth.”[2] Jesus was no relativist and any educational institution so inclined should pack up shop or at least fire the marketing department! Yet before getting into the finer details of His curriculum, Jesus did what many good teachers do: He grabbed His hearers’ attention, disrupted their stale thinking and ingrained habits, with something provocative. That was the core of His happiness course: The Beatitudes.

We know that gospel all too well. It’s a favourite for weddings, funerals, school Masses, you name it. A bit like the “Love is” text from Paul that many find sentimental and pleasing (1Cor 13). They shouldn’t. Both texts are deliberately subversive. In the beatitudes Jesus says things that should upset us. If it’s the abstract on the front of Jesus’ curriculum, a distillation of all He will teach on the Christian life, a disciple starter-kit for those seeking to be part of His Kingdom, then get ready for a bumpy ride! For in these conversation starters, Jesus turns our worldly wisdom on its head. In cultures from the Graeco-Romans, the Jews of Jesus’ day, through to Western consumer culture today, wealth and power, comfort and success were what was valued. Our society has its own beatitudes that run something like this:  

Blessed are the wealthy,
for they can buy the kingdom.
Blessed the powerful,
for they will get their way.
Blessed are the self-satisfied,
for they need no-one’s help.
Blessed those untroubled by justice and mercy,
for they are free of constraint.
Blessed are the impure of heart,
for they’ll have plenty of porn.
Blessed the social media trolls,
for theirs is the kingdom of indignation.
Blessed are those who persecute the unfashionable,
for theirs is the kingdom of popularity.
Blessed are you when all people speak well of you,
rejoice and be glad, for your reward will be more Facebook likes than anyone.

I’m caricaturing modernity somewhat! There are, of course, many good things about our culture, including not a few that are Judeo-Christian patrimony without people realising it. Yet if Jesus’ first hearers were shocked when He told them that the poor and lowly, hated and persecuted, merciful and pure, justice-and-peaceniks, are the truly ‘Blessed’ people, how much more agog would be those today? “Get real,” we can hear them saying, “the world’s not like that. Try that and people will walk all over you. Better to get with the bold and the beautiful. Might makes right.”

The ancients knew that the purpose of life is happiness, but that it can’t be achieved directly: it’s what we experience as we pursue the good. But while they got that right, they all too often reduced happiness in practice, as our culture does also, to avoiding the unpleasant and maximising nice feelings, satisfying passions however fleetingly, and having the means to get more of the same. Jesus says—not just in the beatitudes, but through every aspect of His life—that that’s not real happiness, that whatever the temporary high, it will be followed by a low; that no worthwhile life is all highs in any case; that the good life requires humility and purity, justice and courage, faith and hope. These are God’s kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. They are graces received from God, foretastes of the blessed life beyond.

While undoubtedly a spiritual checklist for discipleship, the beatitudes are first and foremost a description of the person of Jesus, “a hidden Christology.”[3] They are, if you like, another catalogue of names for Jesus. Jesus is Mr Poor-and-Lowly, Sir Hated-and-persecuted-for goodness-sake, King Merciful and Pure, Comrade Justice-and-Peace-maker. In His life, death, and resurrection we see the living out of these traits; the self-emptying love and concern for others to the point of total self-sacrifice; the voluntary poverty, weakness and grief; the dream of justice and mercy; the pure and peaceful heart, even amidst persecution. So, the entry lesson in Happiness 101 is the encounter with Jesus Himself. Get to know and love Him, and it will change your values, character traits, whole conception of what it is for the human being to flourish.

Many around the globe today suffer for clinging faithfully to Christ’s teaching. Christianity is gradually being driven out of the lands of the Bible. Lebanon used to be a Christian country: now only about a third of the population is so. Before the Armenian genocide in Turkey around the first ANZAC day, a quarter of the population were Christian: now it’s more like 0.3%! Likewise in Syria, the homeland of St Paul and of Fr Lewi’s ancestors, there has been more than one attempted genocide of Christians. In Israel and Gaza, Christians now make up only 2% of the population. Even in that most Christian of areas, Bethlehem, Christians have fallen below 1 in 5. There are some terrible stories behind those declining numbers.

Here at home, our faith is increasingly being pushed to the margins. Think of the recently enacted euthanasia laws which require even faith-based nursing homes run by nuns either to provide “Voluntary Assisted Dying” themselves or allow outsiders to do so. Or the past decade of attempts by state bureaucrats to exclude all faiths from the operation of cemeteries. Or the moves by the Australian Law Reform Commission to stop faith-based schools preferencing staff that share their faith, and to dictate what they can teach. As faithful witnesses to Christ’s teachings, disciples will face their crosses—their share of low spirits, mourning, injustice, being reviled, persecuted and defamed.

Hold on, I hear you thinking, Archbishop Anthony should be cheering us up for Christmas! It’s supposed to be about joy to the world, glory to God in heaven, peace to people on earth. Sure enough. But at the first Christmas there was disgrace in Mary’s family, humiliation in Joseph’s heart, disability for Zechariah, homelessness for the Holy Family, paranoia for Herod, slaughter for the innocents, flight into Egypt: not the rosy picture of some of the Christmas carols! If that was there at the first Christmas, it will be there in some form this Christmas also. Yet still Christ comes for our eternal happiness. “Rejoice and be glad, you persecuted, poor and unloved,” Jesus says, “rejoice and be glad, for I am coming, and your reward will be great in heaven!”

[1]    Jesus sat like the teachers of God’s law: Mt 5:1; cf. Ex 18:13; Mt 23:1-3. The disciples were to be “salt of the earth and light to the world” (Mt 5:13-16); steadfast in persecution (Mt 5:11-12); more righteous than the religious leaders of the day (Mt 5:19-20); unmaterialistic (Mt 6:19-24); peaceable (Mt 5:21-26); chaste (Mt 5:27-30); faithful (Mt 5:31-32); truthful (Mt 5:33-37); just and merciful (Mt 5:38-42; Lk 6:36); humble (Mt 6:1-4,16-18); prayerful (Mt 6:5-13; 7:7-12); confident (Mt 6:25-34); obedient (Lk 6:46-49; cf. Mt 7:24-27); non-judgmental but discerning (Mt 7:1-6; Lk 6:37-42). They are forgiving (Mt 6:14-15) and loving (Mt 5:43-47; Lk 6:27-36); fruitful (Lk 6:43-45); and godlike or godward (Mt 5:48; 6:33; 7:21; Lk 6:36).

[2]    See Elizabeth Farrelly, “Unlearning truth? What was Sydney University thinking?” Sydney Morning Herald 24 November 2017.

[3]    Pope Benedict XVI, Jesus of Nazareth: From the Baptism in the Jordan to the Transfiguration, 99.