BY ANNE-SOPHIE OLSEN
Joy can seem very one-sided. During the Christmas season especially, when the stress of decorating and baking and gift-giving is under way, the task of bringing joy to others begins to feel draining. The joy of our friends and family seems to come at the expense of our own.
Christmas Day is a welcome but only temporary reprieve: hardly is the period of stress over when we labor once again to clean up after ourselves. Presents are put on the shelf, relatives are ushered out of the house, and the New Year is just around the corner to bring another wave of exhaustion.
Christmas has come and gone, and the commodity of joy has vanished once more.
Is that it? Is that all Christmas has to offer?
The Merriam-Webster Dictionary gives us two primary definitions1 of the verb “to rejoice.” One is intransitive, and speaks to what is experienced internally — “to feel joy or great delight.” The other is transitive, and speaks to action — “to give joy to.”
The Christian tradition suggests something very integrative about these two definitions of rejoicing: they go hand in hand. They give life to each other, in fact. The Christian tradition suggests that it is good to rejoice because rejoicing brings joy to the hearts of both the giver and the receiver in boundless and self-perpetuating measure.
So why does the Christmas season seem exhausting and transient?
The classic 1966 Christmas movie How the Grinch Stole Christmas2 offers us an answer, and it lies in the Grinch’s misperception of Christmas: the Grinch misunderstands joy, and takes the Whos’ rejoicing to be purely commercial. In his disdain for their festivities he schemes to pervert what he thinks Christmas is — a season of noise and material things — by sneaking into Whoville in the dead of night and stealing every last gift, feast item, and decoration.
Putting ourselves in the Grinch’s shoes, it’s not hard to sympathize: all that “noise! Oh, the Noise! NOISE! NOISE! NOISE!” Anyone might get a headache. To the Grinch, Christmas is the same loud exhaustion, year after year.
If this is true, his scheme is perhaps forgivable. But somewhere along the way, the Grinch discovers that the opposite is in fact the case.
About to dump a sleigh filled with stolen Christmas items off the tip of Mount Crumpit, the Grinch stands poised to hear what he thinks will be the Whos’ weeping at their loss. He hears, instead, their singing: “Welcome Christmas come this way, Welcome Christmas, Christmas day.”
And isn’t this what the Whos have been telling us all along? “Christmas Day is in our grasp, so long as we have hands to clasp.”
Completely enraptured by this possibility, the Grinch lets go of the sleigh. It begins to lurch over the mountaintop, and in his newfound understanding of Christmas joy, he rushes to protect what he was so eager to destroy just moments before. Only, he is too weak — the sleigh slowly drags him down the mountainside and he is powerless to stop it.
But in that moment of powerlessness, a discovery is made:
“And what happened then? Well…in Whoville they say,
That the Grinch’s small heart grew three sizes that day!
And then the true meaning of Christmas came through
And the Grinch found the strength of ten grinches plus two!”
What happened then? Well…we might call it a moment of grace3 — an opportunity to participate in something Good. In a moment of utter weakness, the Grinch is given super-grinch strength, and immediately he uses it to rejoice: he races down the mountain to celebrate with all of Whoville.
It is significant that this moment of grace is prompted by the singing of the Whos, who have been properly rejoicing all along. They successfully live out both senses of rejoicing: celebrating the joy that they feel without concern for material loss, and bringing that joy to the Grinch. It is grace that then allows the Grinch to integrate both these senses in his turn, helping him experience the joy of Christmas as deeply life-giving and then rush to share that experience with the Whos.
This deep transformation, prompted by joy and made possible by a moment of grace, offers us a guide this Christmas season. When we are overwhelmed by the commotion and stress of festivities, we might ask ourselves if Christmas, for us, comes from a store. If our joy seems transient, are we relying on material things and passing experiences for our happiness?
Instead we might allow the joy of our friends and family members to move us, and rejoice with them in return. A shared cup of hot chocolate on a cold morning may bring a moment of grace that allows us to offer someone the joy we have.
How the Grinch Stole Christmas doesn’t go straight to the source, but we can: we may also remember the source of Joy, which is also the source of the grace that helps us to share it. It is in his weakness that the Grinch is given a moment of grace. How fitting — for it was in the nature of a weak and vulnerable human child that Christ was born, Joy Himself bringing the reason for our rejoicing.
2 Jones, Chuck, director. How the Grinch Stole Christmas. 1966.
3 The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines grace as “favor, the free and undeserved help that God gives us to respond to his call to become children of God, adoptive sons, partakers of the divine nature and of eternal life.” (http://www.vatican.va/archive/ccc_css/archive/catechism/p3s1c3a2.htm)