Words Matter: Joy
Words matter: Joy
When John the Baptist heard in prison of the works of the Christ, he sent his disciples to Jesus with this question, "Are you the one who is to come, or should we look for another?" Jesus said to them in reply, "Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them. And blessed is the one who takes no offense at me." As they were going off, Jesus began to speak to the crowds about John, "What did you go out to the desert to see? A reed swayed by the wind? Then what did you go out to see? Someone dressed in fine clothing? Those who wear fine clothing are in royal palaces. Then why did you go out? To see a prophet? Yes, I tell you, and more than a prophet. This is the one about whom it is written: Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way before you. Amen, I say to you, among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist; yet the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he."
What is the underlying thesis of the Christmas movie, Home Alone? Our external circumstances do not determine our true enjoyment. Kevin McAllister begins the movie, thinking that his family is the problem. It takes the whole movie to understand that his attitude is at the center of his problems. At first, when he realizes that his family is gone, he thinks that he will be happy. But soon he realizes that the external circumstances can never change our hearts enough to be happy or sad. He even gives this lesson to his neighbor of whom he was always afraid. He too reunites with his family for Christmas.
We begin today’s mass with a command to rejoice. Today, Jesus gives us the reason for our joy. The entrance antiphon reminds us to rejoice. (Phil. 4:4) It seems counterintuitive to us to think of joy as something that can be commanded. But joy is a characteristic of a disciple of Jesus, Christ, not simply a byproduct of chance circumstances.
I am the problem
Whenever we look outside for the problem, we are missing the point. My attitude and my actions always have a lot to do with my overall happiness. It is important to learn to be full of grace towards ourselves.
When we have this honest and deep introspection, we are able to become like John the Baptist and point others towards Christ. He is the Messiah, and we want others to get to him. When this does not happen, we have to recognize that we have not lived up fully to the mission that he has entrusted to each one of us.
What is joy? Too often, we identify this with simple enjoyment. We think of uninterrupted pleasure as joy, and then become frustrated when this turns out to be an unrealistic expectation.
“True joy is found in the perfect willing of what we were made to will: in the intense and supple and free movement of our will rejoicing in what is good not merely for us but in Itself.” (Merton, Thomas. New Seeds of Contemplation, p. 263) For this reason, we are commanded to rejoice on this Third Sunday of Advent. We are trying to train our hearts to desire Christ for himself and not turn Christmas into a celebration of endless self-seeking.
“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.” (Pope Francis, Evangelium Gaudium, 6) Knowing that we are loved is one of the greatest and most enduring sources of joy. When we know ourselves to be loved, we are able to withstand the storms of this life. We all go through rough patches. When we ourselves are not suffering, we get to accompany someone who is facing a challenging situation. We have to learn to have a joy that adapts and changes, but always endures.
There is a strong push to reduce Christmas to a “Holiday Season.” This would be a great mistake. The wonderful thing about being Christians is that we know why we are celebrating.
The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures, and a blunted conscience. Whenever our interior life becomes caught up in its own interests and concerns, there is no longer room for others, no place for the poor. God’s voice is no longer heard, the quiet joy of his love is no longer felt, and the desire to do good fades. This is a very real danger for believers too. Many fall prey to it, and end up resentful, angry and listless. That is no way to live a dignified and fulfilled life; it is not God’s will for us, nor is it the life in the Spirit which has its source in the heart of the risen Christ. (Pope Francis, Evangelium Gaudium, 2)
I remember seeing the news during December once and seeing beautiful Christmas scenes from Tokyo. The streets were decorated with lights, but when the reporter asked the local residents what the feast was that was being celebrated, they were at a loss. It was the most poignant example I have seen of how it can be easy to celebrate emptily, without the reason for the celebration. We are called to understand and penetrate the meaning of the great feast of Christmas, day on which we celebrate our Savior, born as a child to save us from sin.