"In my God is the joy of my soul"
Is 61: 1-2a, 8 – 11
1 Thes 5: 16-24
Jn 1: 6-8, 19-28
I think one of the most beautiful things God has created is watching a little baby laugh. They may be responding to the smiling face of their parent, or maybe they’ve been tickled by a sibling, or maybe their older brother or sister has made a crumpled face and they respond with baby laughter. The very sound of it has an effect on us; we can’t help but smile or laugh ourselves. Normally, one might say: “Gee, what a happy baby.”
However, if one were to change the phrase a bit and say to the parents, “You have a joyful baby” it may sound strange. The same would be true if we entered a room full of adults’ in good laughter with smiles on their face. We might say, “They sure seem happy.” If we changed it and said, “There’s a joyful crowd,” it sounds a bit odd, out of the normal expression. Yet in the scriptures we hear that when Mary visited her older cousin Elizabeth the baby in the womb of Elizabeth, John, “leaped for joy.” This Sunday we reflect on the great virtue of joy that we often equate with laughter or happiness. Yet, our scriptures remind us that “joy” is something much deeper and more lasting.
Our second reading from Paul’s letter to the Thessalonians, the earliest of Christian writings we have, invites Paul’s early converts to: “Rejoice always . . . give thanks.” Isaiah the prophet speaks of “glad tidings” and to “rejoice heartily.” It’s clear at this point in our Advent walk, as Christmas is nearly upon us, that life may be tough and challenging at times but we can be joyful nonetheless. Yet, how realistic is that or is this just a kind of "pie in the sky" wish? I certainly don't feel happy every day. Some days I'm just bored, lazy, upset, stressed out or even sad.
Yet, St. Paul was no naïve preacher out of touch with reality or trying to be sarcastic. He knew life was hard for the people of his time but the coming of Christ changed everything. It gave to humanity new hope rooted in a fuller understanding of God. We should rejoice always because we come to know that we are not just born into this world with no purpose. As children of a loving Creator, whose heart is seen in Jesus, we are invited to share in the same divine life that Jesus enjoys with his Father.
With God all things are brought together. The coming of Jesus into the world meant, as John the Baptist reminds us, one who will share his Spirit with us and reconnect with humanity that had been separated by sin. So, joy in the deepest sense means that all is at it should be. It's not riches and power that bring true joy but knowing that we are loved by God. Obstacles are removed and brokenness is healed. We see this in the ministry of Jesus – his healing and teaching; his reaching out to the separated and shunned. In Christ we know we are not abandoned or forgotten by God so our lives of faith can be made the same. If we seek the good in all things, to follow in his Way, we know we are right with God despite opposition we might find, and all is balanced and as it should be. To know that is a call to go beyond emotion which is happiness and to enjoy a deeper sense of connection with God which brings Joy. If that is our conviction, then we are able to “rejoice always.”
So, John the Baptist prepares us to hear this new perspective. For hundreds of years there had been no official prophets among the Jewish people. The ones we often hear from, Jeremiah, Isaiah, Hosea, were long past. As long as the prophets spoke among the people, they recognized the active presence of God among them. Although these prophets were all generally treated badly by authorities, still the common people felt that the position of a prophet of God was a significant sign of God’s faithfulness to his people. But for hundreds of years before the baptizer appeared, no one claimed that position. So, the people wondered what happened and if God had abandoned them to be forever oppressed by a hostile government which had taken captive of their ancient country again.
Suddenly, a voice cries out in the desert in the same spirit of their ancient prophets and his message raised hope that maybe now was the time that the Messiah would come. Or, in fact, that John may be the One. So, they ask the simple question: “Who are you?”
John leads them through a process of elimination and finally says, “I am not the Christ, the prophet Elijah or the Prophet” but his purpose is to point to one greater and say in essence: “There HE is.” This Voice, as St. Augustine wrote, prepares us for the Word to come. This creates anticipation in the people and sets the stage for Jesus entrance. Such an event must have filled people with great joy hoping that now all things will be made right between them and God.
While many must have felt joyful in anticipation, this time of Advent reminds us that the joy of this time is far more a conviction than a feeling. In spite of what may seem hopeless or our endless reasons to not be joyful we are hopeful nonetheless because we know that God has come and is present with his people in his Church and in our lives. If we feel lost, confused, sad, unfilled, unsatisfied, or disconnected it is likely a symptom of a spiritual hunger in our hearts.
Maybe this has not been an especially joyful year for you. You’ve been juggling concerns about health with limited finances. The job is all right but not especially fulfilling and you hope for something better in the new year. Maybe adult children still haven’t returned to the practice of their early Catholic faith or it has been a tough year for grandparents and you’ve had to make some uncomfortable decisions about caring for them. Maybe life has just been more of a roller coaster than a smooth highway.
Where do we go for strength and comfort when times are rough? If we view joy as a conviction and not a feeling then we can know that if we are convinced God lives among us and walks with us in our joys and sorrows. As St. Paul implies today God is with us “in all circumstances” we can rest in a joy rooted in God’s promise. This may be a time to identify what is lacking in my spiritual life; that I really haven’t connected much with God this past year. I’ve gone through the motions but never took the time to seek more.
The words of Pope Francis remind us of good news strong enough to give us a reason for hope. In his letter entitled The Joy of the Gospel our Holy Father writes: There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty, that when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved.” (EG, # 6).