What we assume to be happiest time of the year is approaching; we will be denying the doom and gloom of the shortest days and the longest nights of the year, enjoying the festive atmosphere and the company of family and friends. Of course it will not just happen. In order to make it happen we have already made a start, and we will require some substantial effort to provide all the ingredients required. Buying and packing presents, preparing food (or booking a table in a restaurant), cleaning the house, and so on. Actually each family has its own mini-rituals and traditions. All these are for one commendable purpose: feeling happy at Christmas.
Something special about this particular feast is the rather unusual attention given to others. All year round we all have a peculiar inclination to think more about ourselves than about others. But at Christmas we are much more focused on others. There is something very Christian in this attitude, even among those who declare themselves irreligious on a daily basis.
The words of St Paul in today’s second reading recall that purpose: ‘I want you to be happy; I repeat, what I want is your happiness.’ That was the human goal of St Paul’s mission. He believes that a personal and vibrant relationship with Jesus makes one’s life happy. The next sentence seems to be overlooked in our current incarnation of Christianity: ‘Let your tolerance be evident to everyone; the Lord is very near.’ Our problem with happiness is that there isn’t one definition of it that is common to everyone. Someone’s love of classical music might be an unbearable torment to someone else.
Does it mean that happiness is a totally relative thing, depending on personal taste and demands? I’m afraid the answer must be ‘Yes’ to some extent. However, we can find in today’s gospel three elements or aspects that are common ground for everybody. People asking John the Baptist ‘What must we do?’ obviously are seeking his recipe for happiness. As there are different groups of people, among them tax collectors and soldiers, he has different answers for each of them, with regard to their occupations. I think from these exemplary responses we can build broader, more general, but still specific ideas.
Chronologically the first general rule of happiness is sharing your own welfare. It’s great to see so many people in our society supporting charities, working as volunteers, visiting elderly and housebound people, and so forth. In a semi-magical way all the good we do to others comes back to us in another way. The second general rule of happiness is: be decent and honest in your everyday duties and chores’. Routines, exhaustion or low mood sometimes affect our approach to unexciting jobs and sometimes to genuinely irritating people. Decency and honesty in the short term might seem naïve; but in the long haul they win friends and give indispensable peace of mind. The third general rule of happiness must be worded negatively, but it’s definitely positive: ‘do not abuse or exploit your position.’ It’s always tempting to make unfair use of any given authority; we can see it clearly on a virtually daily basis in the news. But it’s not reserved to the world of politics, business or mass-media; less spectacularly, but equally biting are abuse and exploitation on our own level.
In a week’s time we’ll be enjoying the great festive atmosphere, unwrapping presents and pulling them out the Christmas stockings. Could we add something more to that? Perhaps some long-lasting happiness, wrapped in everyday generosity, decency, honesty and fair play. Christmas can stay with us for longer. It depends solely on you.