Awaken to the Joy
Fr. Raymond Lafontaine December 17, 2017
“Rejoice in the Lord always: again, I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.” This antiphon for the Third Sunday of Advent, the lighting of the rose candle, the undercurrent of joy bubbling just beneath the surface of today’s readings, are designed to awaken in us Advent joy. At the same time, the liturgy of this Sunday also invites us to cultivate an attitude of patience. What might be the connection between these two virtues, and how are they brought to light in the Scriptures that have just been proclaimed.
I thrill every time I hear this wonderful text from the 61st chapter of Isaiah. When I was ordained a priest twenty years ago, this was the reading that was chosen especially for the ordination Mass. “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because God has anointed me to bring good news to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to captives, to announce a year of Jubilee.” Is there any better description of our call to share in the mission of Christ? Are we not, like Jesus, invited each in our own way to be a witness of good news, to reach out to those who are less fortunate than us, to break the chains of oppression that prevent people from living fully their identity as God’s beloved children? The people who first heard this message had experienced exile and slavery; they had now returned to a homeland in ruins, in need of reconstruction and renewal. They were hungry for a word of hope, a promise of joy: yet they would need patience and perseverance in order to make that Good News proclaimed by the prophet a reality.
The same dynamic is at work in the Gospel: John, the last of the great Prophets foretelling the Messiah to come, announces that the realization of God’s promise is very near indeed. John embodies in a remarkable way the virtue of genuine humility: because he knows who he is not, he more clearly knows who he is. He is quite content to be a witness to the Light, but not himself the Light; to be the precursor of the Messiah, but not himself the Messiah; to baptize with water, in anticipation of the One who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. He was content with rough clothing, simple food, and a potentially dangerous ministry – calling people to repentance, especially powerful political leaders, never wins you much popularity – because the source of his joy was within.
Later on, at his darkest moment in prison, awaiting death, John sent word to find out whether Jesus truly was who he said he was. Being human, even the Baptist was subject to doubts and fears and second thoughts. Had it all been worth it? Maybe he had been mistaken! But the message sent back by Jesus confirmed the realization of the promise: “Go and tell John what you see: the blind see, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor receive the proclamation of Good News.” With those words, John knew that his ministry had not been in vain: he was able to face even his death with courage, with the joy of knowing that what he had long desired and hoped for was now being realized.
We hear very much the same message from Paul today. Paul believed with all his heart that God’s anointed one had been revealed in Christ Jesus. The source of our joy is therefore not something to be hoped for in the future, so much as something to be celebrated here and now. Paul’s advice is clear: no matter what is going on in our lives, we are to “rejoice always, pray without ceasing, and give thanks in all circumstances.” That is pretty radical advice. “Give thanks in all circumstances.”
Being human, we tend to give thanks when things are going well – and complain when things are going badly. And if we take the time to really listen to ourselves – not just the words we speak, but the thoughts we nourish, the grudges we nurse, the self-pity and frustrations that so easily surface within – we can see how difficult it is to follow Paul’s advice to “always be thankful.” This is why Paul invites us to ponder God’s fidelity: “The one who calls you is faithful, and it is he who will sanctify you.” It is only because God is faithful that we can respond with fidelity; it is only because God has loved us first that we can reach out to others in love. And nothing is capable of giving us that taste of joy more surely than the knowledge that we are loved without condition and limits, and the experience of being able to love that way in return.
What about you? What brings you joy? For what are you most grateful? The virtues of joy and gratitude are deeply connected, but not necessarily in the way we would expect. In a wonderful little book called Gratefulness: the Heart of Prayer, Benedictine monk David Steindl-Rast defines joy as “that extraordinary happiness that is independent of what happens to us. The root of joy is gratefulness. We notice that joyful people are grateful and suppose that they are grateful for their joy. But the reverse is true: their joy springs from their grateful hearts. It is not joy that makes us grateful; it is gratitude that makes us joyful.”
It isn’t always easy to feel joy these days. So many situations come along to dim its brightness and prevent its spread. Many among us may be finding it especially hard to enter into the joy of Christmas this year. This can be for any number of reasons: loneliness, financial burdens, health problems, family struggles, the death or illness of a loved one. Sometimes we need to be patient, as we await the fulfilment of the promise, the return of joy. But Advent is also a time in which we are called to reach out to one another, particularly to those in special need. We look around the sanctuary, and we see not only the signs of the coming of Christmas, but of our need to care for the poor and needy in our midst: the hats and scarves and mitts for Dans la Rue, the toy drive for our Christmas baskets which will be given out this week, your generous gifts of food and money for the poor here at home, in our twin parish in Zamoran, in all places of need.
We all need to experience the joy of knowing that we are loved and cared for. By God, of course, but not a faraway, distant God; by a God who takes flesh in concrete gestures of human love and caring. Many people who experience sadness or depression at this time of the year report that what lifts them out of this state – at least temporarily – is the effort they make to reach out to someone else who is in need. So as we patiently enter these last two weeks of preparation for Christmas, may each of us be open to being “surprised by joy” as we reach out to one another and to those in need. Then, following the example of Isaiah, Paul, and John the Baptist, we too can proclaim the Magnificat of our mother Mary: “My soul rejoices in the Lord, and my Spirit rejoices in God my Saviour.”