As I was driving back to the airport on a rainy Sunday afternoon after speaking at a Christmas service of remembrance, I saw a drive through restaurant and decided to get a cold drink before turning onto the highway for the fifty-mile drive. There was not a car ahead of mine, so I placed my order and drove up to the window.

   The woman who greeted me was not a typical fast-food employee. She looked much older than she probably was. Perhaps she had done some hard living or been a victim of challenging circumstance in her life. Her mostly gray hair was tied back haphazardly and revealed a face with a story to tell, its chapters etched into the wrinkles and folds of her leathery skin.  

   Yet her charming, rather lopsided smile was radiant and drew me in. Her warm, engaging spirit suggested that with every transaction and personal interaction there was the possibility of a new friend. Her manner and outreach far exceeded any standard customer greeting suggested by the company handbook. In that brief moment of enterprise—I gave her $1.81, she gave me a cold drink—there was an experience of transactional joy that touched me deeply. I left certain that for one shining instant I had been in the presence of an unlikely angel.

   In John 16: 20 (NIV) we read this intimation of joy, “Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy.” The promise expands in John 16:22 (NIV), “Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy.” While both verses clearly acknowledge the reality of our grief, they overflow with hope and the promise of joy.

   When we grieve at Christmas, often there is a vast disconnect between superficial merry making and the transactional joy of Christmas. We may be surrounded by friends, family, and those we call family, yet we may be unable or unwilling to enter into the organized good cheer of a seasonal gathering. We ask, “What’s wrong with me?” because we are longing for the presence of our loved one. Transactional joy cannot be experienced in emotional isolation. There are always two parties to any transaction.

   One of my small Christmas traditions is to donate to the Salvation Army Red Kettle drive. For many years there was a red kettle right outside my local drugstore, complete with the seasonal high spirits and persistent bell ringing of a volunteer soliciting donations. With the advance of technology and increased concern about safety and security, in recent years the only place to donate has been at a local mall. Instead of a red kettle waiting to be stuffed with crumpled bills, there is a red tripod with only a forlorn, dangling chain. Instead of a volunteer, there is a sign on how to donate by text. Though the transaction lacks the satisfaction and pure joy of a human interaction, surely those in need benefit as much from an electronic donation as  from cash put into a red kettle.

   Christmas comes when our hearts are touched by joy. Within every transaction of our soul and spirit there is Emmanuel, God with us, “But the angel said to them, ‘Do not be afraid; for see—I am bringing you good news of great joy for all the people’” (Luke 2:10). Christmas comes when someone reaches out to us in love, whether a friend, a relative, or a complete stranger. Christmas comes when we reach out to someone else in love with no expectation other than the potential for joy—their joy and ours.

   At the heart of transactional joy is the presence of God, the source of all true joy, “When they saw that the star had stopped, they were overwhelmed with joy. On entering the house, they saw the child with Mary his mother; and they knelt down and paid him homage. Then, opening their treasure chests, they offered him gifts of gold, frankincense, and myrrh” (Matthew 2:10-11).