Fr Billy Swan
This season of Advent is known as one of ‘Joyful expectation’. In the Church we name the third Sunday of Advent as Gaudete Sunday or ‘Joyful Sunday’ as our waiting for the Saviour is almost at an end. Then, we wish each other a ‘Merry Christmas’ as we share meals, exchange gifts and treasure loved ones at this time of year. Yet, the irony is that for many, the joy of Advent and Christmas is hard to come by. Yes, Christmas can be a time of joy for some but it can be a time of sadness for others for a variety of reasons. It is not the same for everyone. Where then, can joy be found?
When we look into the Bible and our faith Tradition, we discover a number of important points about the experience of joy.
The first is that joy is the fruit or consequence of knowing God is near. At Christmas we celebrate ‘the Word made flesh who lives among us’ (Jn. 1:14). God has visited his people and promised us that we are never alone. In our midst, he offers the people he loves the fullness of joy for which we were made. When we accept the friendship of God, we experience joy: ‘O God you are to my heart a richer joy than all’ (Ps. 4:7); ‘Shout for joy, rejoice, exult with all your heart…the Lord is in your midst’ (Zephaniah 3:17); ‘Rejoice so highly favoured. The Lord is with you’ (Luke 1:28).
Part of the reason why many of us struggle to find joy at Christmas is because we confuse joy with feeling good. In the world of advertising which peaks at times like Christmas, we are encouraged to feel good all the time and to get whatever it takes to make our lives happier. The truth is that no amount of material things, stimulants or comforts can compensate for a lack of joy that many experience in the depths of their soul. The source of our joy is not in what we have. It lies in ‘Emmanuel’, the name which means ‘God is with us’ (cf. Matt. 1:23).
A second feature of joy in the Bible is that it comes about through God’s saving work. God’s presence among his people is not static. When his people experience his salvation, joy flows in abundance. We see this with people like Hannah who ‘exults in Yahweh…for I rejoice in your deliverance’ (1 Sam. 2:1) and with Mary whose spirit ‘rejoices in God my Saviour…for the Almighty has done great things for me’ (Lk. 1: 47, 49). We see it in the three great parables of mercy in Luke 15 where the stories of the lost sheep, the lost coin and the prodigal son all end in a rejoicing that flows from restoration, healing and forgiveness.
What this teaches us is that joy is produced from God’s action in our lives that always moves us towards harmony and right order. God’s spirit is always leading us into deeper communion with each other and with him. His spirit moves us from slavery to freedom, from darkness to light, from turmoil to harmony. God is always forming us to become more perfect in love. When God’s saving action brings this about, joy is the result.
A third feature is that the experience of joy from God’s salvation leads to worship which leads to more joy: ‘Then will I go unto the altar of God, unto God my exceeding joy’ (Ps. 43:4); ‘Sing for joy to God our strength; Shout joyfully to the God of Jacob’ (Ps. 81:1); ‘They will come to Zion shouting for joy, everlasting joy on their faces’ (Is. 35:10).
Here I can’t help but think of the deprivation of joy caused by so many staying away from our communities who gather for prayer and especially the Eucharist. Christian joy cannot be confined to one’s private life. As the angels announced on the night of Christ’s birth, Christianity is ‘news of great joy: a joy to be shared by the whole people’ (Luke 2:10). The joy of some is the joy of all and it is found where people gather to pray with hearts filled with gratitude.
A fourth feature of joy is that it is not just rooted in God but in the ways of God. These are the ways of God that we must embrace if joy is to be ours. For example, joy will be impossible if we act unjustly or ignore truth. Plato argued that justice is always happifying (Republic) and St Augustine insisted that ‘the happy life is joy based on the truth. This is joy grounded in you, O God, who are the truth’ (Confessions 10, 22, 33). Likewise, St Thomas argued that all the prescriptions and prohibitions of the Gospel are ordered to our joy (Summa Theologiae, q. 99). Here is the invitation to order our lives along the domains of justice, truth, peace and love. It is the way of the Beatitudes where Jesus teaches us how to be blessed. When we are blessed, joy ensues. Feelings come and go but the fruit of a well ordered life is blessedness which leads to lasting joy.
A fifth aspect of joy is that it is possible to have, even in the midst of suffering and loss. For the prophet Habakkuk: ‘Though the fig tree should not blossom and there be no fruit on the vines. Though the yield of the olive should fail…Yet I will exult in the Lord, I will rejoice in the God of my salvation’ (Hab. 3:17-18). Faced with his impending departure and death, Jesus assures his disciples that ‘though you will be sorrowful, your sorrow will turn to joy’ (Jn. 16:20). Sorrow is temporary. Joy will be everlasting.
For us, this means that while all our lives are incomplete and many of us carry heavy crosses, the experience of joy is still possible when our suffering is united with that of Jesus. The experience of sadness and loss is not an end in itself but a moment that will give way, sooner or later, to joy. Blessed Oscar Romero spoke these words from the darkness of El Salvador’s violence: ‘It is wrong to be sad. Christians cannot be pessimists. Christians must always nourish in their hearts the fullness of joy’ (The Violence of Love).
A sixth dimension of joy from the Scriptures is that joy experienced in this life is but a shadow of that which awaits us in heaven: ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard and no mind has imagined all that God has prepared for those who love him’ (1 Cor. 2:9). The joy of the present is an anticipation of the joy in the future where our destiny lies – to praise God forever in heaven: ‘Alleluia! Let us rejoice and exult and give him the glory’ (Rev. 19:7).
For St Augustine, this will be a time when ‘we shall no longer drink the milk of hope, but we shall feed on the reality itself’. Therefore, as we journey as pilgrims in this life, ‘let us rejoice in the Lord; for it is no small reason for rejoicing to have a hope that will someday be fulfilled’ (Sermon 21). We are an Easter people (even at Christmas!). Even now we possess the joy of the resurrection that draws us forward towards a future of joy with God forever.
The seventh foundation of joy in the Bible is that God himself is joyful. The source of our joy is in God who is joyful: ‘Do not mourn or weep for the joy of the Lord is your strength’ (Neh. 8:9-10). The prophet Zephaniah says that ‘God will rejoice over you with happy song. He will dance with shouts of joy for you’ (Zeph. 3:17). The German Dominican Meister Eckhart (c. 1260 – c. 1327) once wrote that ‘the Father laughs at the Son and the Son at the Father and the laughing brings forth pleasure and the pleasure brings forth joy and the joy brings forth love’ (Sermon 18). In more recent times, the Catechism confirms this states that: ‘In God the Father, Son and Holy Spirit, there is unending life, joy and communion’ (Catechism of the Catholic Church 1720).
This insight raises the question: how often do we contemplate God’s nature as joyful love? I suspect we are more likely to image him as stern and serious rather than overflowing with abundant joy. Yet when we reflect on the life of Jesus, a joyful God is who he reveals: ‘At that time, full of joy through the Holy Spirit, Jesus exclaimed, ‘I praise you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth’ (Luke 10:21). Indeed it could be argued that the whole spiritual life is founded on Jesus’ invitation to ‘enter into the joy of your Lord’ (Matt. 25:21). God wants to share his joy with us through his gift of the Spirit of Christ: ‘I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and that your joy may be complete’ (John 15:11). Therefore, Christ wills that his disciples be known by their joy as a fruit of the Holy Spirit that they possess. In the words of St Paul: ‘I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord’ (Phil. 4:4). In the midst of a world weighed down by troubles, the Christian is a person possessed by a divine joy that is infectious and attractive. This is why for Mother Teresa, ‘joy is a net of love by which we catch souls’ for ‘the one filled with joy preaches without preaching’. It is why joy is described by G.K. Chesterton as ‘the gigantic secret of the Christian’ (Orthodoxy) and by Leon Bloy as ‘the infallible sign of the presence of God’ (Letter to Jacques Maritain). For all Christians called to participate in the new evangelization, it emphasizes the importance of giving a united witness to the joy of the Lord for ‘with Christ joy is constantly born anew’ (Pope Francis, The Joy of the Gospel, 1).
Christianity is a religion of joy. It is truly ‘glad tidings’ for humanity. As Christmas approaches, we may well experience feelings of melancholy or sadness for many legitimate reasons. But let us also have the courage to rejoice in the Lord – in his presence, in his gift of salvation, in our praise of him, in his ways, in our hope of heaven and even in his cross. God is the source of our joy for he is the God of joy.