Third Sunday of Advent (B)

“You say you are a Christian. Then where the devil is your joy?” – Georges Bernanos


On this, the Third Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday), the liturgy we celebrate returns again and again to this theme of joy. Witness the Opening Prayer at Mass: “Enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation, and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.” Witness the first reading: “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul”. Witness Paul, in the second reading: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks.” Joy. Rejoice. The message seems clear.

Yet, if someone were to come and ask one of us – unexpectedly – how we are feeling right now, odds are that “joy” might not be the first word that passes our lips. Or the second. Or even the third. We might talk about the stresses of this season, our worries about family and friends (or our own health), our concerns for our Church, country and world. But joy? Is it realistic to feel joy, given the world as it is? Even if we felt joy, we might not admit to it. We might point to how difficult life feels, and wonder if joy is even possible. However, if we look to people in other parts of the world – people who have far fewer material goods than most of us and experience more than their share of suffering – they often come across as people who radiate a kind of joy that at once attracts and confuses us. We want that joy for ourselves, but we don’t know how they could possibly find joy in their lives as they are. As a result, we don’t know where our joy might come from.

Back in the 1990’s, Peggy Noonan (at one time a speechwriter for Ronald Reagan and George Bush) wrote an interesting article about just this thing. She argued that we Americans are, on the whole, a sad people. We have been taught to expect happiness in our lives as a natural outcome of the “American dream”. We Americans, Noonan added, believe that this world, this life, is our only chance to be happy. Therefore, when we don’t receive what we see as our rightful share of this world’s happiness – wealth, health, popularity, status – we despair. When we look at how prevalent depression and anxiety are in our society, along with an increase in drug addiction and suicide, we can see that Noonan might be on to something here.

All too often, we who call ourselves Christians act and react no differently from anyone else around us. We live and act as though this life was our only chance at joy and happiness. We live and act as though God was not truly with us. Therefore, we expect from someone or something else – our job, our friends, our spouse – what only God can give. We are disappointed and disillusioned, then, when they inevitably fail. We feel frustrated, depressed, confused, angry. Not only that. When joy actually comes, we may not trust it. We don’t know where to file it. We may try to hide it or deny it, as though our joy embarrasses us. And yet, we need that joy.

Whenever we cling too hard to the wrong things, our lives inevitably get too small. Our hearts become  closed in on themselves. We feel depressed and lonely, even if we are among many people. We become less and less able to give and receive. We lose touch with our joy, the joy that God means for us to have.

Yes, God wants us to have joy. The New Testament is saturated in it. The birth of John the Baptist brings rejoicing to his family and friends. Angels announce the birth of Jesus with tidings of great joy. Jesus speaks of the Kingdom of God as being like a man who discovers a treasure in a field, rejoices, sells everything he has, and buys that field. The Kingdom of God is also like the woman who loses a coin and then finds it, the shepherd who loses one sheep and finds it, or the father who loses a prodigal son – but then the son returns. All these cause great joy. At the Last Supper, Jesus promises us joy, a joy that no one can take from us. Paul is continually urging his new Christian communities to rejoice in the Lord.

What is at the very heart of this joy but Jesus himself? Though he is the Word through whom all things were made, he became a helpless baby for us. He embraced a human life, like our own in all things but sin – for us. He knew hunger, fatigue, thirst, misunderstanding, and rejection – for us. He submitted to the incredible torture and humiliation of the cross – for us. He was raised up, again for us.

What does this mean for our joy? Mary sang of this in her Magnificat. as she rejoiced in all the Lord had done for her and through her. In Jesus, God has subverted all the categories of this world, everything we tend to chalk up to “the way life really is”. In Jesus, the lowly are raised, and the powerful of the world brought down. The hungry are fed, while the well-fed have nothing. Those who appear to have no reason to rejoice, have every reason to do so. They have made an amazing discovery. It’s the standards of the world that are the illusion that will dry up like morning dew. “The way life really is” is the way of God. That is what will endure. God has come to meet us where we are. God has come to fulfill our hearts’ deepest, truest longings. Nothing can separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus – as Paul so well expresses it.

How do we find this joy for ourselves? Jesus tells us in the Beatitudes. The path to a fullness of joy often winds its way through the thickets of suffering. This is a hard thing for us Americans to understand. We usually say, with the old song, “I haven’t got time for the pain”. We want to avoid it, or find a pill that will ease it. But I’m not talking about a kind of masochism: “Beat me, I like it.” Nor am I talking about proving how tough we are by boasting about how much suffering we can endure. In both cases, we have become addicted to the suffering itself, or to the status we imagine we’ll get if we suffer more. That’s still self-centered, and not the path to joy.

No. For the Christian who has the Spirit of Jesus, suffering has a different role. First of all, it reveals our limitations. Suffering exposes our fantasies about ourselves as nothing else can. Secondly, we realize that, though our own sufferings, we are united with the sufferings of everyone around us, and ultimately to those of Christ himself. Christ overcame the power of sin and death through his suffering. Christians who suffer in union with Christ, then, share in Christ’s victory. They experience in their own pain their liberation from sin and darkness. They become open to grace. They become truly compassionate to anyone else who suffers. They will forget their pain in an instant when someone else needs them in any way. They will realize that the ups and downs of life in this world cannot take away this joy. It does not depend on getting material goods, “likes” on Facebook, or other worldly “gold stars”.

Suffering is necessary because we are being cleansed of our sinfulness. If sin is like addiction in some ways, then when we are on the road of repentance, we’ll feel a kind of “withdrawal” from that sin. That’s what opens us to temptations over and over again. We want to go back, like the Israelites in the desert, feeling that even slavery in Egypt must be better than this desert wandering. That’s when we need to persevere all the more, knowing that God will not abandon us in our need but will bring us grace and healing.  God has already won the victory. God is our Divine Physician. We need to believe that he is already curing us, and keep going.

Finally, suffering is a direct result of love. To love is to suffer. One can only love when one’s own heart has been wounded by love. To love is to be vulnerable to the sufferings and injustices that we see all around us, and especially in the innocent and most vulnerable around us. But this willingness to love – even at the risk of suffering – also opens our hearts to that joy that no one can take from us.

Now, don’t mistake joy for some superficial, happy feeling. It may feel like that at times, but it cuts deeper. Much deeper. Can we be in physical pain, and still find joy? Of course. Many have experienced it. Can we be in emotional pain – even depression – and find joy? Yes. Been there. In such a case, joy may not be the light, “ha ha” feeling, but may be this unconquerable sense that, even though we seem to be carrying an impossible weight, we are not carrying it alone. Someone is also present. Someone who sees, knows, understands, and loves in an indescribable fashion. Someone who is willing to walk with us even in the valley of the shadow of death. By that Someone’s grace, even that weight will be overcome.

Rejoice, then! The victory is already won! All the supposed “movers and shakers” of this world cannot take this joy away. They will disappear as clouds do when the wind turns to the west and the sun shines once again. As Jesus promised us, our reward will be great in heaven. Though that is true, Jesus also told us that the Kingdom of God is already in our midst. Those rewards are already being given to us. Be not afraid. Rejoice always. Never lose heart. Your King is near!