Once there was a little boy in church attending Mass with his mother. He was in a happy mood, and he was looking at all the people in the pews around him and smiling at them. He wasn’t doing anything wrong or creating a disturbance of any sort—he was just smiling. His mother, however, was upset with this. She whispered angrily, “What’s wrong with you? You’re not supposed to be happy in church,” and after she smacked him, tears came to his eyes. “There, that’s better,” the mother said, and she returned to her prayers (James F. Colaianni, Sunday Sermons Treasury of Illustrations, #519).
Actually, that wasn’t better; as far as God was concerned, it was much worse. Smiles are usually more appropriate in church than tears. Many of us were brought up with the idea that only solemnity is proper during Mass. Solemnity is proper—but so is joy. Within the Archdiocese of Detroit, every parish has been urged to be especially welcoming when our twice-a-year Catholics show up for Mass on Christmas, while inviting them to return on a more regular basis. We might ask ourselves a simple question: if we were Christmas and Easter only Catholics, would we be more likely to return if everyone was in a friendly and happy mood, or a dour and miserable one? That question answers itself. Joy is supposed to be central to our faith. Christianity does give us news about very serious subjects—life, death, judgment, sacrifice, and suffering—but the news it gives is Good News: Jesus saves us from our sins, gives meaning to our suffering, and overcomes death and offers us a share in His new life. If this isn’t reason to rejoice, nothing is. Joy doesn’t deny suffering, sorrow, or pain; it keeps them in their proper context. Joy must be part of our faith and our lives; being joyful is in fact our vocation as Christians.
Some might object to this by saying, “Joy is easy if things are going well—but otherwise it’s not,” or, “Being joyful isn’t very practical in everyday life.” The readings for the Third Sunday of Advent give us a different perspective. The prophet Zephaniah (3:14-18) proclaims a message of happiness: “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!” This message becomes remarkable when we realize the context. The Jewish people were going through a difficult time, facing probable military disaster. Zephaniah himself had interpreted this tragedy as God’s punishment for Israel’s sins; most of his message, in fact, was of the “fire and brimstone” variety, warning of the terrible judgment of God. Throughout his book the prophet denounces Israel’s sins and warns of great suffering and anguish—but his final word is one of joy. In spite of everything, God’s love will prevail; He will save His people— thus, there truly is a reason to rejoice.
St. Paul (Phil 4:4-7) also speaks of joy: “Rejoice in the Lord always! I shall say it again: Rejoice!” Paul wrote this happy message while in prison; he was suffering greatly and beginning to realize he might be facing martyrdom. Yet his faith in Jesus Christ was so real to him that he could rejoice, and also call upon others to do so. The Gospel of Luke (3:10-18) shows that faith in Jesus can be real for us, too. John the Baptist was preaching to common people, tax collectors, soldiers, and others whom the religious leaders looked upon with contempt, considering them unworthy of salvation. John’s message to these people, though serious, was also joyful—and very practical. His good news was that God’s Kingdom was intended for them, not just the religious professionals and so-called “holy” people. Moreover, there were simple, everyday things they could do to prepare for the Kingdom: sharing with others, being honest, and not lying or cheating. John himself lived this out; he humbly announced that he was not the Messiah, and in spite of the difficulties and opposition he faced, he was happy with his role of service to Christ.
When I was in the seminary, I once attended an Easter Vigil service in my home parish. Even though it was a very long Mass—almost three hours—I didn’t mind, because it was very joyful. The music was beautiful, the congregation participated, and everyone was caught up in a spirit of rejoicing. The next day I watched a televised Easter Mass from a major archdiocese. All the necessary persons and elements were there: a cardinal, the bishops, the people, the proper rituals, a sense of solemnity—but something was missing. I asked myself, “Where is the joy?” Somehow the Mass didn’t seem complete—because a sense of rejoicing appeared to be absent.
From time to time we have to ask ourselves this same question: Where is the joy? Is joy present in our lives—especially in our faith? Certainly, there are times when we should or need to feel sad, sorrowful, or angry; sometimes we will be disappointed, tired, or worried. In general, though, we should strive to be joyful and optimistic, looking for signs of the Lord’s presence and being grateful for His blessings. If we’re not joyful in this way, maybe that’s a sign our relationship with God isn’t quite what He wants it to be.
We wouldn’t want our children, family, or friends to put on a sad face every time they came into our presence. God doesn’t want that, either. With the Lord’s help, it is possible to be joyful, hopeful, and optimistic, even when things are going wrong. Most of us know people like that—persons who, in spite of their sufferings and problems, don’t complain, but are always cheerful. They’ve discovered the “secret” of joy: the realization that God is with us, that His love and concern are greater than our worries and problems, and that His presence in our lives makes all the difference.
In the past, the Third Sunday of Advent used to be called Gaudete Sunday, which is Latin for “rejoice.” Rose-colored vestments were, and still are, used as a sign of joy that Christmas was drawing near. Now, however, the Church emphasizes that all of Advent is meant to be a joyful season—and, in fact, joy is appropriate throughout the year. God wants us to be happy—in church, during the liturgy, and in our daily lives—for it’s only when we’re joyful that we’re truly able to celebrate and share the Good News of Jesus’ coming.
REVEREND JOSEPH M. ESPER is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit and pastor of Immaculate Conception parish in Anchorville, Michigan. He received his Master of Divinity degree from St. John’s Provincial Seminary in Plymouth, Michigan. Through the years, Father Joe has lectured at Marian conferences, appeared on EWTN, spoken on Catholic radio, and written more than a dozen articles for This Rock, The Priest, Homiletic and Pastoral Review, and other publications. He is also the author of numerous books, including Saintly Solutions, More Saintly Solutions, After the Darkness, Lessons from the Lives of the Saints, and Why Is God Punishing Me? In addition to Amazon, many of his most recent books are available through Queenship Publishing.