Scott Hahn is author of the new book Joy to the World: How Christ’s Coming Changed Everything (And Still Does). The popular author, a biblical theologian, focuses like a laser on the holy family of Nazareth and the transformative power of this miraculous event we celebrate at Christmas. He talks about Christmas joy and more with National Review Online. – KJL
Kathryn Jean Lopez: What exactly is “the joy of Christmas”?
Scott Hahn: It’s the most surprising joy of all — our delight in the fact of God’s incarnation. The prophets raised glorious expectations for the advent of the Messiah. But God outstripped them all. Who could have predicted the terms of our salvation? Who would have dared to wish for them? In Christ we’ve become “partakers of the divine nature” (2 Peter 1:4). It’s impossible for us to dream anything better for ourselves.
Lopez: Why is it important to notice that Jesus “doesn’t behave like a conventional hero”?
Hahn: Jesus’ story is so much a part of us that we no longer notice its strangeness. I hope, with this book, to help people to forget the intervening millennia for a few moments and see the first Noel as it was. Jesus was power made perfect through weakness, as Saint Paul said. He learned obedience through suffering. And that was true from the first instant of his incarnation. His way was not the way of the gods and epic heroes of antiquity. We need to recover a sense of amazement at the humility of God, who allowed himself to be swaddled and diapered, hunted like an animal, and hidden like contraband.
Lopez: You write that “the family is the key to Christmas” and “the family is the key to Christianity.” What does that mean for people who weren’t raised with a mother and a father? And didn’t have the occasional shepherd in the mix?
Hahn: That’s a good point, Kathryn. I think people who lack a mother or father sometimes have a keener understanding of the meaning of salvation. If some don’t really know what they’re missing, they still sense the privation — the lack, the loss. When they discover their place in God’s family, they’re blessed, I think, with a deeper sense of its meaning and power. No earthly parents are perfect. No earthly family will live up to our hopes. At Christmas, Jesus draws us into the only family that will satisfy us: the Holy Family, the Communion of Saints, the Church.
Lopez: How is Mary “cause of our joy”? And why is it important to get to know her, as she was, a girl of Nazareth?
Hahn: God chose Mary to bear the Messiah in the world; but it was his sovereign will that she should do so freely. By her decision, she was as much the “cause” of her offspring as any mother is — and her offspring is Jesus, our joy.
Lopez: What’s the most underappreciated detail of the Christmas story?
Hahn: Jesus! And I’m afraid that will always be the case. We can never appreciate him enough, thank him enough, or praise him enough. As we sing in the hymn, he is “beyond all praising.” He is endlessly fascinating, and our lives in their entirety could not satisfy our debt to him. Our appreciation deficit for Jesus is, by its nature, unique, permanent, and infinite.
Lopez: As Christmas has become a somewhat secular holiday, what do we owe those who don’t know Christ? Without being presumptuous or self-righteous or simply annoying?
Hahn: We owe them what we always owe them — and everyone. We owe them boundless charity. We owe them a glimpse of our joy. No, more than a glimpse — we want them to experience the joy of Christ through the joy of our company and our friendship. If God humbled himself to share our condition, let’s humble ourselves to draw near to them where they are. This is not about being self-righteous or annoying. We don’t need to get preachy. We just need to be true friends to all our friends.
Lopez: How much did Pope Benedict’s books on Jesus influence the writing of this book?
Hahn: He’s omnipresent, as you’ll see in my footnotes — and not just his three-volume Jesus of Nazareth, but all his books. No theologian has had a more profound influence on my work.
Lopez: You clearly loved writing about Bethlehem, because of the memories it brought back about visiting there with your family. Not everyone can go to the Holy Land. How do we keep our Christmases and memories Christ-centered?
Hahn: When we pray, wherever we are, we’re as close to Jesus as we’d be in the Holy Land. Saint Gregory of Nyssa – who managed to make a pilgrimage in the fourth century — said that the true Holy Land is the heart that contains God.
Through Advent and Christmas we should strive to pray in a more focused and disciplined way. If we can check into the liturgy more often — or even daily — that’s the ideal way. In the liturgy we hear the readings from the Old and New Testaments, and by the grace of the sacraments we’re caught up in the stream of salvation history. This is why God became incarnate at the first Noel.
Lopez: You write that “to understand the meaning of Christmas, the simplest of pious field hands were better equipped than the most erudite scholars.” Have you seen that remain true with your own eyes?
Hahn: We don’t need a doctorate to be saved. Most of the canonized saints never got to graduate school. The Church has always honored reason and wisdom more than anyone else has. But, as Saint Paul pointed out, our smarts are not our greatest of gifts. That honor goes to charity, which is accessible to everyone. I’ve known erudite scholars who are prodigies of charity. But I’ve also known prodigies of charity who never got good grades in school. In the Christmas story, we see both types of character in the wise men and the shepherds.
Lopez: If anyone — a Christian in particular — reading this this Christmas is not feeling joy, what might he do?
Hahn: A good confession is always a good beginning. The greatest impediment to joy is our own sin. It’s not suffering so much that gets us down. Lots of people suffer, and yet they radiate joy. If we can take some first steps beyond sin and beyond our preoccupation with self, we can begin to know joy. The best next step is service to others. We can look for the people who are worse off than we are and try to ease their pain. Finally, we can take up the ancient Catholic advice and “offer up” our own sorrows and disappointments.
I don’t mean to minimize anyone’s pain. I know that depression, anxiety, and grief are heavy crosses to bear. But they need not leave us joyless. The saints — especially the Holy Family — show us practically how to draw closer to Jesus in trying times. Christmas leads us to hold the divine baby close when we find ourselves shut out of the inn. Christmas leads us to hold the divine baby closer when we find ourselves fleeing from some modern-day Herod.
Joy and Jesus are equivalent terms. We can have joy — we can have Jesus — even in the midst of suffering.
— Kathryn Jean Lopez is senior fellow at the National Review Institute, editor-at-large of National Review Online, and founding director of Catholic Voices USA.