“I rejoice heartily in the LORD, in my God is the joy of my soul.” —Isaiah 61:10
“Joy has come to me from the Holy One.” —Baruch 4:22
When someone tells me to “be happy,” that is one of the things least likely to make me happy. So I am tempted to cringe a bit at first when St. Paul tells us in Philippians 4:4, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”
The call to joy
Yet St. Paul’s encouragement is one of countless examples in Scripture. To take just one example from the Old Testament, the Prophet Zephaniah writes (3:14):
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
Sing joyfully, O Israel!
Be glad and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
I find it easy to let that text slip by me because I am not “Zion,” “Israel,” or “Jerusalem.” It is easy to forget that every word of Scripture is addressed not only to the people who lived during biblical times, but also to us. Through the words of Scripture, the Lord speaks to us, here and now, even in a year as difficult as 2020 has been. God wants us to pay attention and allow his word to sink in and change us.
God’s desire that his word enter into us and change us includes his command to rejoice. Jesus himself makes clear how important joy is in the lives of his disciples. To take an especially significant example, Jesus repeatedly speaks of joy at the Last Supper. In John 15, Our Lord says, “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). Although we are not yet defining joy, note that Jesus says these words knowing that He is soon to suffer and die on the Cross. And He knows that ten of the twelve men at table with him will die as martyrs. In the same chapter of John’s Gospel, Jesus predicts the world will hate them, even as it has hated him.
In the next chapter, Christ says, “You will grieve, but your grief will become joy” (16:20), and also, “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you” (16:22), and finally, “Until now you have not asked anything in my name; ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete” (16:24). Christ’s final address to his disciples before his Passion, Death, and Resurrection includes a strong message about joy.
The Church is rapidly approaching Christmas, perhaps the single day of each year we most easily associate with joy. The Third Sunday of Advent, simply because it is close to Christmas, is called Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin imperative form of the verb “to rejoice.” On Christmas itself, the angels tell the shepherds (and us!), “I proclaim to you good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10).
We echo this call to rejoice whenever we sing, “Joy to the World,” or any of the other Christmas carols that proclaim the joy that characterizes our celebration of Christ’s birth.
In the Archdiocese of Detroit, to which I belong, Archbishop Vigneron often echoes God’s call to rejoice when he challenges Catholics to become a “joyful band of missionary disciples.” Much could be said about what it means to be a band, to be missionary, or even about something as seemingly basic as what it means to be a disciple. But even a word as seemingly straightforward as “joy” lends itself to distortion by those who over-emphasize emotion and experience.
Joy vs. looking and feeling happy
I began this article by sharing my distaste for being told to “be happy.” I do not mean to give the impression that this happens a lot. I only meant for my experience to serve as an example. But it does happen from time-to-time.
One such occasion took place after the last Mass of my first Christmas as a priest, back in 2006. A woman whom I had never met before approached me. She had a somewhat sterner look than those who had come up on their way out of church simply to wish me a merry Christmas.
This woman looked me in the eye and, recalling the theme of my homily, said, “You were preaching about joy up there, but you sure didn’t look joyful.”
I do not remember how I replied, though I am sure it was one of those cases in which all of the intelligent things I might have said occurred to me only hours later. In the moment, I was taken aback and felt a little sorry for myself. I was tired by the time of the afternoon Mass on Christmas Day, and visible demonstrations of joy seemed to be beyond my strength.
My point is not to highlight something that happened to me, however. Rather, it is to say that people often mistake superficial happiness for Christian joy. I am confident that I was joyful on that Christmas, regardless of how I looked on the outside due to my fatigue. I probably should have made more of an effort to express my joy externally, but the lack of visible happiness does not necessarily indicate the absence of joy.
All of us, I presume, prefer feeling happy to feeling unhappy. That is a no-brainer. It is the rare Scrooge who seems to relish being unhappy. Yet we know from experience that emotional
happiness tends to come and go, due to a variety of factors within and outside of us, many of which are beyond our control. Does this mean that our joy comes and goes so easily? How could God call us to be joyful if joy is a feeling and that feeling comes and goes for reasons we cannot control?
More than a feeling
God calls us to be joyful because he gives us joy as a gift, and accepting and cultivating that gift is within our control. To quote the 1970s rock band Boston, joy is “more than a feeling.” It is not that joy and feeling happy, or looking happy for that matter, are completely unrelated. Saint Teresa of Avila, perhaps in a moment of exasperation at having seen too little joy on the faces of her fellow Christians, once said, “God save us from gloomy saints!” Nevertheless, to be joyful does not require that we always feel good or “look happy.” This gift of God is something much deeper.
Joy is one of the twelve fruits of the Holy Spirit. It is the result of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us. We profess each Sunday that the Holy Spirit is the “Lord and Giver of life.” Joy is connected to vitality. Being alive in the Holy Spirit produces a supernatural quality within us that is like happiness but deeper than the feeling of happiness. It is a quality of the soul, not subject to our changing moods unless, God forbid, we allow a negative emotional state to push us into sin.
The Holy Spirit is also known as the Sanctifier, the One who makes us holy. We know that Christ and his Church have called all the clergy, religious, and faithful to holiness, from the Sermon on the Mount to the present day. Holiness is a catalyst for joy. God’s grace, by which we are made holy, is a catalyst for joy.
Pope Benedict XVI makes clear the link between grace and joy in his 2012 book Jesus of Nazareth: the Infancy Narratives. He describes the greeting of the Archangel Gabriel to Mary at the Annunciation as an illustration of this link. When Gabriel says, “Hail, full of grace,” the word “hail” in the original Greek connotes the quality of joy. The greeting, taken as a whole, demonstrates the relationship between Mary’s cause for being joyful and the fact that she is “full of grace.”
The insight of the saints
The Blessed Virgin Mary is the supreme example of what is true of all the Church’s saints, that holiness and joy are bound together. Holiness produces joy, and joy helps the Christian to continue on the path of discipleship, even when the going gets tough. And it always gets tough.
Returning to St. Paul’s encouragement to “rejoice in the Lord always,” it is important to see that this is not some empty-headed sloganeering or a mere pep-talk. Rather, it is a command born of St. Paul’s faith and hope in the risen Lord Jesus. In fact, St. Paul was in prison as he wrote these words. He suffered tremendously, and in a wide variety of different ways, for his faith, and he would eventually die as a martyr at Rome.
Mary, St. Paul, and every saint down through the ages has shared a key insight about suffering and joy: they are not mutually exclusive, but rather exist in a mysterious, profound harmony in the lives of Christ’s faithful disciples.
We saw, above, in the words of Jesus at the Last Supper that he foresaw the mixture of suffering and joy that would characterize their lives as apostles. What was true for them is true for all of us. Joy is not about escaping the evils of this world and living a life of ease, or comfort, or even worldly peace (though, of course, we work for peace). Rather, joy can live securely in the hearts of those who appear on the outside to be in the most terrible circumstances.
One of life’s most inspiring experiences is to meet a person who is suffering greatly and yet remains joyful and in a state of spiritual peace. It is awe-inspiring to spend time with these holy people, to see their dedication to the Lord and even—amazingly—their obvious gratitude for all of the blessings they have received, even in the midst of grave difficulty. Gratitude is essential ingredient in living a joyful life.
Such people model for us what it means to know the Lord, to know him personally, to know him in faith, hope, and love. Such people know and love Christ present in the sacraments, especially the Holy Eucharist, seeks him in his word and in prayer, and recognize him in other people, especially the poor, sick, and lowly of this world.
The exact reason why suffering and joy are linked together is something we will only know fully in heaven. But it is no accident that the same Jesus who tells us to take up our crosses and follow him also calls us to a deep and abiding joy.
Indeed, we do not have the words to describe perfectly why the path of suffering and the path of joy are bound to each other, but we do find the answer in the Word of God, Jesus Christ. He is the One who comes to us at Christmas as a vulnerable Child, who is our crucified and risen Lord, and who gives his Body and Blood to us under the humble appearances of bread and wine.
He does all of this so that we might know the joy that even sin and death cannot conquer, the joy that begins here on earth but finds its perfection in heaven.
The wisdom of the Kingdom vs. the “wisdom” of the world
All of the above stands in sharp contrast to the message of the world, which tells us to do what makes us “happy,” as the world defines happiness. The world tells us to do things our own way, to follow our hearts—as if our hearts were absolutely dependable compasses for good living—and that we are more or less perfect just the way we are.
Yes, God has made us “very good,” and in Baptism we have become His beloved children, but sin is also a reality in each of our lives. We live in a tension between goodness and sin, and we need to pursue holiness, not just presume it. When we presume our own holiness, we live a lie, and living a lie is always a path to misery.
When we live in the truth, we may not always have warm or exciting feelings, but we do have something better—true joy. We have joy that is deep, abiding, peaceful, and fulfilling. If we want joy we need to turn to the Lord and ask Him for it. Again, joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and Advent is a great time to ask God for this great gift, and show Him we really want it:
• By rejecting our sins, and especially by asking God to forgive them in the Sacrament of Reconciliation;
• By centering our lives on Christ through the sacraments, prayer, and works of Christian love;
• By “going out into the desert,” separating ourselves from the secular cacophony of noise and distraction for times of prayer and reflection on the coming of Jesus at Christmas and at the end of time;
• By thanking God for all of His blessings. It would be a great practice to thank God for at least five blessings every night before going to bed. Sometimes, we get caught up in thinking all the news in the world and in our lives is bad news, but that is not really true. God has blessed us and is blessing us now!
• And finally, by embracing the mission God has given us, no matter what the cost.
It has been said that the letters which spell “JOY” give us the priorities that make us joyful: Jesus, Others, and then Yourself. At every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we have the chance to turn to Jesus once again, despite all of our troubles, to offer Him to the Father and to receive Him into ourselves, so that He can increase and we will decrease. It is a chance to be empowered by Jesus to go and love others the way He has loved us, even dying on the Cross for us. It is a chance to ask Him for the gift of Christmas joy, and to pledge that we will not hoard this gift for ourselves, but will share it generously with all we meet.
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