affectivity Christmas

The Joy of the Season

6:00:00 AMChase J. Cloutier

I recently attended an Advent retreat at a local church. One theme we reflected on during the retreat was the "joy" that the world expects us to have during the Christmas season. During this time of the year, you so often hear the phrase "Happy holidays!" or "Merry Christmas!" that these words may tend to lose their meaning. Especially for those who have recently lost a loved one, who are out of a job, or who are going through a difficult time, getting through the holidays can be a struggle. Unfortunately, "joy" starts to seem like something artificial and bland. We put on a smile for others but it all feels so fake. Is true joy possible anymore?

As we have discussed on this blog previously, von Hildebrand distinguishes between different kinds of affectivity. There are certain feelings which depend on the body. You might ask a friend who has been sick, "How are you feeling today?" For the last several days they have felt physically exhausted. There is no intelligible reason why they are exhausted but there is a cause. Because they are fighting their illness, their body is fatigued. This would be a bodily affection which arises on the basis of a stimulus but not on the basis of anything meaningful.

Other feelings are consciously experienced but are not motivated. For instance, one may feel jolly after consuming alcohol. This is a feeling that is psychically experienced -- it is not merely on the bodily level -- but again there is no real meaningful reason why one is jolly. Having a drink during the holidays can be a good way to celebrate with friends and family. Alcohol can bolster a spirit of joviality found in conversing with others. However, it is regrettable that some repeatedly flee to alcohol so as to produce a feeling of happiness on demand.

The most significant kind of feeling is that of spiritual affectivity. Some feelings are motivated. One encounters an object infused with meaning and must respond to it. A student is elated that he has passed all of his classes. A husband and wife rejoice to discover that they are pregnant. One considers all of the blessings one has received in the previous year and genuinely rejoices because of the gift of life. In each of these cases, there is a true motivation for one's affectivity. In his work The Heart, von Hildebrand says the following: "A state of jolliness clearly differs from joy, sorrow, love or compassion insofar as it lacks, in the first instance, the character of a response, that is, a meaningful conscious relation to an object." (25) A spiritual affection is a meaningful response to an object which engenders our affection. At particularly significant times in our life, a spiritual affection may be of such a depth that we never forget that moment.

When we speak of the joy of the Christmas season, which kind of affectivity are we referring to? Some individuals think themselves lucky to make it through the holidays having a job and their health. The warmth of a home can often be taken for granted in winter. Others will be content in enjoying their eggnog and chocolates. While such luxuries afford a joviality not altogether out of the spirit of the season, I would like to say that the joy of the season goes much deeper.

For non-Christians, a profound joy can be found during Christmas for all of the gifts that one has received: family, friends, and the gift of life itself. Moreover, we live in a world full of beauty and love for which we can always be thankful. In this way, everyone can have a real joy during the Christmas season.

For Christians, the joy of Christmas itself is found in the coming of Christ into the world. (Just ask Linus!)
The tidings which the angels brought were of "great joy" because of the reality that a savior had come. At Christmas, we participate in the joy of the angels at the coming of Christ the Lord. Thus the happiness that one experiences at Christmas should go beyond the giving and receiving of material gifts. It should be a joy responsive to the greatest gift from above: the gift of God Himself. Christ is there even in the midst of great sorrow and pain. Indeed, He comes in the midst of a "bleak midwinter" when the earth has grown dark. Christ comes bestowing the light of His joy and peace.
The joy of the season should be a joy responsive to the greatest gift from above: the gift of God Himself.

It is clear then that the joy of the season goes far beyond mere superficial sentimentality. It is the joy which Christ Himself bestows. What can you give Him in return? Give Him your very self. Give Him your heart.


Dietrich von Hildebrand, The Heart: An Analysis of Human and Divine Affectivity (South Bend: St. Augustine's Press, 2007).

Image: Ernest Lawson. Harlem Valley, Winter, 1921. Oil on canvas mounted on panel. The Phillips Collection. (original source)

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