How does joy become holy? It all depends on the object of your joy. If your joy is about having a certain experience, receiving a certain gift, getting a certain reaction, then you will or will not have joy based on whether your expectations are met. Presto-magic joy is achievable under certain circumstances.
Holy joy is an altogether different experience. If your joy is found in the thing that cannot be taken away from you, you can have joy in every circumstance you encounter this Christmas season. Let’s say you are stuck in the airport for seventy-two hours while your dream vacations melts away. That is definitely not a joyful thought. You are hungry, tired, broke, disappointed beyond measure. You can experience holy joy. This comes from making the object of your joy the reality that no matter how this situation plays out, you will be stretched and drawn closer to God through your prayers and hopes for the resolution you want and acceptance that His way has to be better even when you can’t see it. It is totally possible to find joy in hardships.
Paul’s most joyful letter to the church in Philippi was written from his prison cell—now that has got to be worse than missing days on your dream vacation and being stuck in the airport for 72 hours. I’m sure that Paul, being human, had a few tears and laments about his situation from time to time. Those releases led him to joy as he surrendered to whatever God had prepared for him. Holy joy cannot be created by human effort. It is the total surrender of trust and peace that God knows what He is doing and feeling blessed for what you have.
Sometimes it is hard to see the goodness you have been given when you feel like a prisoner in an airport. In fact, stopping to realize how much worse your situation could be is helpful toward moving into holy joy. When you feel like a prisoner, think about the innocent people who are literally prisoners, like Paul. Realize that your situation isn’t as bad as it could be. Think about your fellow disappointed passengers and how some of them are dealing with health issues you are not, or others have a fear of flying which is being prolonged through the delay.
The birth of Christmas was full of joy. It was holy joy. There were tired pilgrims who were met with overcrowded accommodations forcing them to seek shelter in a cave used for animals. What joy they discovered when they could make the feeding trough—the manger—a cradle for their baby. The joy was shared when some dirty shepherds burst into their private place with tales of angels and directions and good news for all men. They found unexpected joy in the old faces of Simeon and Anna when they were privileged to see their Savior, for whom they prayed, as a baby. They likely felt joy when they realized the generous gifts they were given in Bethlehem by the Wise Men were exactly what they needed to sojourn in Egypt for the years they needed to be away until Herod the Great died.
Holy joy filled the Christmas scene most vividly in the transformation of the shepherds. Luke 2:20 describes them:
“The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen, which were just as they had been told.”