RECOICE, THE LORD IS NEAR!
Today, the third Sunday of Advent, is known as ‘Gaudete’ Sunday from the first word of the entrance antiphon, which is in turn the first verse of the second reading ‘Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice’. This is rather lost in our mundane translation where it is turned into ‘I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord’. This third Sunday is full of a sense of joy and rejoicing – the words joy and rejoicing appear once in the Opening Prayer, four times in the first reading, twice in the psalm and twice more in the second reading.
Here, in the middle of Advent, we are clearly meant to think about joy. Clearly there is an element of anticipation about this: the birth of the Saviour is close. But this seems also a good opportunity to think about joy more generally. What is it, and where does it come from? Most important of all, how can we find it and keep hold of it? Obviously joy, which is one of the fruits of the Spirit, is much more than happiness or pleasure. It is something that goes deeper than either of those, something that is less easily disturbed than either of those. Whereas happiness and pleasure depend on circumstances, on the kind of day I am having, joy is more like a fundamental attitude, a key to the way I live, something that affects everything I do or say. I was thinking about this while we were in Rome this week watching the Pope drive past to lead the devotions for the Immaculate Conception. Those people who portray him as some sort of stern and hardline disciplinarian have clearly never seen him, because every time I have seen him, his face has been full of joy, the kind of joy that lifts peoples spirits and makes them glad to be there, glad to be alive. What can be the source of such joy?
The first step on the path to joy is to understand more fully the place from which we begin, to know and love our faith, and the Church which proclaims it, better. The second step is to take to heart who it is that travels with us. On every step of our journey we are accompanied by the risen Jesus. We are deeply, profoundly, absolutely and unconditionally loved by him, and he is always beside us. Zephaniah and the psalmist tell the people to rejoice because the Lord is in their midst; Paul tells the Philippians to rejoice because the Lord is very near. There is no doubt that essential to Christian joy is faith and trust that Christ walks beside us, and that he loves us.
Finally, joy depends on a trusting acceptance of where we are heading. We might know where we began, and with whom we are travelling, but unless we are sure of where we are going joy will elude us, and be replaced by uncertainty. For that reason we must be very clear that God plans for us to spend eternity with him; his plan is that the end of our journey will be ‘like plunging into the ocean of infinite love, a moment in which time – the before and after – no longer exists’ (Benedict XVI Spe Salvi n. 12).
An old story goes, that one day, a countryman knocked hard on a monastery door. When the monk tending the gates opened up, he was given a magnificent bunch of grapes.
Brother, these are the finest my vineyard has produced. I’ve come to bear them as a gift.
Thank you! I will take them to the Abbot immediately, he’ll be delighted with this offering.
No! I brought them for you. For whenever I knock on the door, it is you open it. When I needed help because the crop was destroyed by drought, you gave me a piece of bread and a cup of wine every day.
The monk held the grapes and spent the entire morning admiring it. And decided to deliver the gift to the Abbot, who had always encouraged him with words of wisdom. The Abbot was very pleased with the grapes, but he recalled that there was a sick brother in the monastery, and thought: “I’ll give him the grapes. Who knows, they may bring some joy to his life.” And that is what he did.
But the grapes didn’t stay in the sick monk’s room for long, for he reflected: “The cook has looked after me for so long, feeding me only the best meals. I’m sure he will enjoy these.” The cook was amazed at the beauty of the grapes. So perfect that no one would appreciate them more than the sexton; many at the monastery considered him a holy man, he would be best qualified to value this marvel of nature.
The sexton, in turn, gave the grapes as a gift to the youngest novice, that he might understand that the work of God is in the smallest details of Creation. When the novice received them, he remembered the first time he came to the monastery, and of the person who had opened the gates for him; it was that gesture which allowed him to be among this community of people who knew how to value the wonders of life.
And so, just before nightfall, he took the grapes to the monk at the gates. Eat and enjoy them – he said. – For you spend most of your time alone here, and these grapes will make you very happy. The monk understood that the gift had been truly destined for him, and relished each of the grapes, before falling into a pleasant sleep.
Thus the circle was closed; the circle of happiness and joy, which always shines brightly around generous people.
Joyfulness is the characteristic of feeling and expressing deep happiness and enthusiasm. As an attitude of the spirit, it can permeate even the most sorrowful situation. When we open ourselves to joy, we let in light and laughter, strength and grace.
Joy celebrates beauty and goodness, inviting us to dance without demanding or expecting anything. Sometimes joy is quiet and hidden, and sometimes it burts out in song and movement or in the act of creation.
Joy is a cup overflowing that generously shares itself with all who are near. When we are joyful, we are exposed but unafraid, unselfconsciously offering the gifts of energy, hope, and inspiration.
George Mallory was the famed mountain climber who may have been the first person ever to reach the top of Mount Everest. In the early 1920’s he led a number of attempts to scale the mountain, eventually being killed in the third attempt in 1924. His body was found in 1999, well preserved by the snow and ice, 27,000 feet up the mountain, just 2000 feet from the peak. Give up he did not. His body was found face down on a rocky slope, head toward the summit. His arms were extended high over his head. His toes were pointed into the mountain; his fingers dug into the loose rock, refusing to let go even as he drew his last breath. A short length of cotton rope – broken – was looped around his waist.
In 1992, when Mallory was asked why climb Everest this is the reply he gave: “The first question which you will ask and which I must try to answer is this, ‘What is the use of climbing Mount Everest?’ and my answer must at once be, ‘It is no use’. There is not the slightest prospect of any gain whatsoever. Oh, we may learn a little about the behaviour of the human body at high altitudes, and possibly medical men may turn our observation to some account for the purposes of aviation. But otherwise nothing will come of it. We shall not bring back a single bit of gold or silver, not a gem, nor any coal or iron. We shall not find a single foot of earth that can be planted with crops to raise food. It’s no use.
So, if you cannot understand that there is something in man which responds to the challenge of this mountain and goes out to meet it, that the struggle is the struggle of life itself upward and forever upward, then you won’t see why we go. What we get from this adventure is just sheer joy. And joy is, after all, the end of life. We do not live to eat and make money. We eat and make money to be able to enjoy life. That is what life means and what life is for.” (Source: Biographical information from Seattle Times January 16, 2000)
Paul Brand is a brilliant medical doctor who did pioneering work in the treatment of leprosy. He has received the Albert Lasker Award, been made a Commander of the Order of the British Empire by the Queen, served as the only Westerner on the Mahatma Ghandi foundation, and had medical procedures named after him.
Brand grew up in India, where his parents were missionaries. At the age of nine he was sent to a boarding school in England. Five years later, while a 14 year old student there, he received a telegram informing him that his beloved father had died of blackwater fever. Brand cherished fond memories of his father, a man who had a great love for people and a great love for the natural world around him.
A short time after he received news of his father’s death Paul Brand received a letter from his father. It had been posted prior to his father’s death but took some time to reach Brand as it came by ship. It’s words impacted deeply upon the young son. Paul’s father described the hills around their home and then finished with these words: “God means us to delight in his world. It isn’t necessary to know botany or zoology or biology in order to enjoy the manifold life of nature. Just observe. And remember. And compare. And be always looking to God with thankfulness and worship for having placed you in such a delightful corner of the universe as the planet Earth.” Source: Reported in Philip Yancey, Soul Survivor (Hodder & Stoughton, 2001).
In the First Reading, we hear that Prophet Zephaniah ministered during the Babylonian invasions. He consoles the people that in spite of the destruction God stands in their midst and will renew them by his love.
In the Second Reading, St. Paul says we have a duty to be happy, to let go of sadness and anxiety, for the Lord is in our midst. We need to live with a spirit of prayer and thanksgiving.
Gospel Reflection: This mid-point of Advent alerts us to issues of justice and equality. The prophet John has been asked as a sort of trick question by people who exploited others with tax bills, and soldiers who often used their brutal force on others, how they should repent. His words were tough but quite ordinary – don’t overcharge, share your surplus with the needy and don’t exploit people. It’s another, but more figurative way, of stating the basic demands of ‘Love one another’.
Christmas can bring out the best in us to care for the needy. We are surrounded by charities looking for aid. We know that Jesus hears the cries of the poor, and he joins every carol singing group trying to help.
The greatest danger to the continuation of any society becomes a reality when most of its members become motivated by selfish concerns, greed and covetousness. The message that our own society invariably highlights is not, alas, that of sharing cloaks, but of wearing outfits that are better, more comfortable, more in keeping with the size of one’s salary. The sad thing is that all this unbridled seeking for earthly comforts, this concern with the cares of life, pulls us further and further away from the yearning for himself, that God has placed within all of us. It turns us away from the things of the Spirit, and from the pursuit of religious idealism. Prayerfully then, and in the presence of God, let us give thanks to the Father in this Mass, for the gift of his divine Son, who in its celebration makes us one with himself.
Christmas also asks us to consider our honesty and integrity, for we know that many are poor, at home and abroad, because of the greed of others. Christmas is a reminder and a challenge that all can live with the human dignity we have come to regard as human rights – education, safety, shelter, food, water, employment, freedom. The Christ child who was born poor represents all the poor of the world especially children. As he was born ordinary, he represents that God meets, greets and helps us in the ordinary of life.
The one who is to come is the one who will live and love according to these truths of human dignity and equality.
Come, Lord Jesus, child of the earth, child of God. Come into our world of joy and sorrow. Stay with us always, now and at the hour of our death.
The word “joy” appears more than 150 times in the Bible. There are over two dozen scriptures dedicated to the power and importance it has in our lives, yet when it comes to truly defining and implementing joy, we’re left a bit on our own. While happiness is definied simply as a state of being, joy is something much more. It’s a feeling that stays with us, that emanates from our being, not dependent on certain circumstances or our current moods. But how do we find joy in our life and, more importantly, how do we share that joy with others?
Here are tips some for arming yourself with joy and spreading it to those around you, inspired by the book, Fight Back with Joy by Margret Feinberg .
1) Smile at the people you see. A recent study found that smiling can increase our happiness level and make us more productive, but the grin must be genuine. Start in your own home. Smile at your roommate. Your spouse. Your kids. Allow your eyes to light up, your hidden teeth to show. Look each person in the eyes. Remember that you’re beaming the joy of God to them. You’re reflecting the delight of your heavenly Father.
2) Radiate grace. When you see a coworker, spouse, or child make a mistake, do something clumsy, or break something valuable, rather than becoming angry, bring lightness to the situation with laughter and compassion. Help them clean up the mess with a big smile and verbally affirm the person’s value and worth.
3) Sing or hum throughout the day. All of creation has joined a holy chorus giving praise to God. You can join in right now, wherever you are. Turn on the radio. Plug in the iPod. Hum to yourself. Offer joyful praise to God.
4) Place an exclamation point on today! Don’t let this be another average day. Pause for a moment and consider what simple acts you can do to make today special for you and those whom you love. You don’t need much time or money. Pick wildflowers or gather some fresh tree branches and place them in a vase. Light a few candles. Pull out the white Christmas lights and hang them around your living room. Set out the fancy dishes. Wear your favorite shirt. God has placed the exclamation point of his love on your life. Do something to reflect that exclamation point of loving him back by celebrating this day he has made!
5) Write a kind note to someone you love. If you need a fresh infusion of joy, then bless someone else. Grab a notecard and start jotting down all the things you appreciate about someone. Feel the gratitude well up in your heart. Then, pop that notecard in the mail and spread the joy.
6) Do something you love. Most people I know aren’t guilty of doing what they love too much, they’re guilty of doing it far too little. God has gifted and wired you for specific activities that renew your joy, fill you with delight, and remind you of his love. What is your joy-filling activity? Are you an outdoors person, a coffee shop connoisseur, love shopping with friends, settling down with a great book, or cooking a new recipe? Do the activity that God uniquely wired you to thoroughly enjoy and give him thanks for it while you’re doing it. Celebrate your Creator.
7) Strike up a conversation with a stranger. A recent study at a Chicago train station asked commuters to participate in a simple experiment. One group was asked to talk to the stranger who sat next to them. The other group was instructed to keep to themselves. By the end of the ride, the commuters who spoke to a stranger reported a more positive experience—even though most had predicted the ride would be more pleasant if they sat quiet and alone. Research is beginning to reveal what I suspect God knew a long time ago, namely, that interacting with strangers helps us feel happier and more connected. Instead of keeping to yourself, say “hello” and strike up a conversation with those around you.
“Count your age by friends, not years. Count your life by smiles, not tears.”
– John Lennon
“Let no one ever come to you without leaving better and happier. ”
– Mother Teresa
Fr. Gaspar Fernandes, OFM Cap.