Practical Divinity: Our search for happiness

By Andrew C. Thompson
Special Contributor

’Tis the season to be jolly. It’s right there in how we greet people this time of year: Merry Christmas. Happy Holidays. The Christmas season is supposed to be a time of joy—Joy to the World, in fact!

Nowadays Christmas comes at us in two forms. There’s a church Christmas, and then there’s a cultural Christmas. The first of these—church Christmas—is about things we know very well. It celebrates the birth of Christ into the world and pushes us back to those wonderful stories that tell us about angelic visits, prophecies fulfilled, and a virgin birth. The Christmas of the church shows us the mystery of the Incarnation.

The second Christmas is the Christmas of culture. It feeds off of the other Christmas and relies on many of its symbols in order to thrive. But the story it offers is really about something else. It’s about eggnog and fruitcakes, holiday sales and office parties, Frosty and Santa Claus. The Christmas of the church is something to be proclaimed. The Christmas of culture is something to be marketed.

Selling happiness?

When I was growing up, these two Christmases were merged seamlessly in my experience. We’d go around with a church group singing Christmas carols in the evening, and I’d come home afterward and catch the Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer Christmas Special on TV. On Christmas Eve, my family always attended worship and the service was powerful. But my awe at our church’s candlelight service did not dampen the enthusiasm with which I tore into gift-wrapped presents when we got home.

I think things have changed in the past few decades, though. The reach of the cultural Christmas has grown more powerful and pervasive. I have a three year-old daughter, and it’s hard to get her to focus on anything other than the consumerist side of the holiday season. I think that’s a problem.

So I don’t start to sound like a bona fide Grinch, let me explain what I’m getting at. I don’t think this issue is as simple as the well-worn criticism that says our culture is trying to “take the Christ out of Christmas.” Truth be told, you can leave the Christ in Christmas and still celebrate a holiday that has very little to do with what Christmas is supposed to be about.

I want to get down to a fundamental question: What is it that can finally make us happy? The Christmas of culture is pretty sure it has this question figured out. Happiness, according to its view, comes by gratifying the desires of our senses at every level. This is partly about Christmas trees with blinking lights, gingerbread cookies and wassail. But it’s even more about the local shopping mall, from “Black Friday” deals after Thanksgiving to after-Christmas sales going on right now.

Culture’s Christmas is designed to sell us a particular kind of experience—which we’re under pressure to piece together lest (horror of horrors) our children be disappointed. And if there is anything that parents are taught to be anxious about, it is the moment-by-moment happiness of their kids.

Revealed, not bought

There’s that word again. Happiness. I’m just not convinced that the experience cultural Christmas wants us to have really merits the word happiness. One of the fascinating things I found when I began to read John Wesley’s writing is how much he comments on happiness. Wesley doesn’t use the term the way we tend to use it. He speaks of happiness to describe what it means to live the most fully flourishing life.

The happy person, in his sense, is the person who is living the best kind of life that can be lived. You can’t connect happiness with anything that can be bought, in Wesley’s view. In fact, you can’t connect it with anything you can lay claim to in this world at all. Happiness is rather that state of life you enter into when you come to know Jesus Christ. Wesley puts it this way: “This begins when we begin to know God, by the teaching of his own Spirit. As soon as the Father of spirits reveals his Son in our hearts, and the Son reveals his Father, the love of God is shed abroad in our hearts; then, and not till then, we are happy.”

Given the season we’ve been in, it’s a remarkable statement. It says so much about what is right about the Christmas of the church, and so much about what is wrong about the Christmas of culture. The culture’s view is that Christmas only becomes Christmas when the marketing of it is right. Only then can we experience true happiness.

Wesley, on the other hand, will have none of that. He has no doubt about how happiness comes about. In his sermon “Spiritual Worship,” Wesley says that happiness comes about when Jesus Christ “has taken the full possession of our heart; when he reigns therein, without a rival, the Lord of every motion there; when we dwell in Christ, and Christ in us, we are one with Christ, and Christ with us; then we are completely happy; then we live all ‘the life that is hid with Christ in God.’”

Those words paint a wonderful image. They are both an antidote to the consumerism that so infects this season of the year and a reminder of what we should be teaching our children at every opportunity.

The Rev. Dr. Thompson, Wesley scholar for the Arkansas Conference, teaches at Memphis Theological Seminary and serves as associate pastor of Marion UMC. He may be reached at athompson@arumc.org.