"And the Word became flesh and pitched his tent among us … from his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace..." - Jn 1:14, 16

Reflecting on more than half a century of life, I discover that the best Christmases I’ve experienced is with God’s poor or marked by gratitude. Two sets of Christmas memories consistently elicit joy within me. The first kind involves celebrating Mass with juvenile hall kids, with secret indigenous catechists in the high country of Vietnam, with Filipino natives in remote mountain villages, or visiting deported men at homeless shelters in Tijuana, Mexico. The second set of memories surrounds celebrations grounded in gratitude with my family (both biological and religious life). I have been blessed with many happy Christmases, but the joyful ones leave a deeper imprint in my heart and soul.

I often confuse joy with happiness. Yet there is a key difference. Happiness is about getting what we want while joy is about wanting what we get. Happiness is dependent on favorable circumstances that trigger passing feelings. Joy is an attitude of openness to life as it unfolds, an acceptance of the way things are. Joy lasts beyond feelings of satisfaction, even when things do not go our way. Joy is deeper. It’s about being near someone we love. It’s about encountering Jesus.

Today we celebrate what is most important to our faith. No other religion believes that God, creator of heaven and earth became human like us. Jesus, Word of God, Who is God, became human – one of us. He built his house next to ours, lived among us, ate like us, suffered with us, for us, to save us, to give us greater life. He came as a baby, a poor, humble, vulnerable child, to an ordinary family. He came to serve and give his life because he loved us. God is in love with us. Like people who love, God wants to be one with us whom He loves. Moreover, Pope Francis reminds us, “God is in love with our smallness.” When we embrace our poverty or accept poor and marginalized people, we welcome God. We encounter Christ. We grow closer to God.

Likewise, the more we receive everything as gift or grace – i.e. wanting what we get – the more we come closer to God the Giver. As we let ourselves embrace grace upon grace, we encounter the fullness of Christ. And joy overflows.

It shouldn’t be a surprise that my more joyful Christmases come from encountering Jesus in people on the margins of society or when I lean greater in gratitude. Yet, I am thankful for this rediscovery of the heart of our faith that God is with us, especially in our smallness and in thanksgiving.

Jesus, are you inviting me to be more with your poor or practice greater gratitude this Christmas season? Draw me closer to you, my joy.

P.S. Pope Francis’ homily last night at the Christmas Eve Mass is an inspiring and challenging gem.