The 18th century Austrian composer, Joseph Haydn, was once asked why his church music was so cheerful and he replied: “When I think upon God, my heart is so full of joy that the notes dance and leap, as it were, from my pen, and since God has given me a cheerful heart, it is only right that I serve Him with a cheerful spirit.”
I begin with this because today is the third Sunday of Advent (aka: Gaudette Sunday); which, in Latin, means “rejoice.” Rejoice Sunday, therefore, is meant to be a sign for us that Christmas is drawing near. As such, on our journey to Bethlehem, we are called to rejoice and be joyful or joy-filled, if you will.
One of my favorite theologians, Peter Kreeft, who teaches at Boston College, once said this about joy: “No one who has ever said to God, ‘Thy will be done’ and meant it with his/her heart, has ever failed to find joy – not just in heaven, or even down the road in the future in this world, but in this world at that very moment, here and now.” With joy, therefore, there is a turning away from our “old” self and embracing our “new” self, grounded firmly in God.
We see this transformation in Charles Dickens’ character, Ebenezer Scrooge. In a Christmas Carol, Scrooge encounters the Spirits of Christmas Past, Present, and Yet-to-Come. Through these encounters, he is changed and begins to approach life in an entirely different way. The same may be said of Frank Capra’s character, George Bailey. In It’s a Wonderful Life, after wishing that he had never been born, Bailey is shown the blessings of family and friends that have been given him. Like Scrooge, he is forever changed.
In the Revised Standard Version Bible (Second Catholic Edition), the word joy appears some 106 times. Perhaps we might classify the experience of joy into three categories: Disposition, Awe, and Courage.
DISPOSITION. The Psalmist (47:1) proclaims what should be the disposition of God’s people: “Clap your hands, all peoples! Shout to God with loud songs of joy!” It is the same feeling given us by the Prophet Isaiah (61:1-2, 10-11) in our first reading and Psalm; namely, that our “souls should rejoice in our God!”
AWE. There can be no greater awe than that found at The Visitation, that sacred moment when Mary, with the child Jesus in her womb, visits her cousin Elizabeth who is carrying John the Baptist. Elizabeth exclaims the famous words: “For behold, when the voice of your greeting came to my ears, the child in my womb leaped for joy.” (Luke 1:44) Early in my ministry, prior to a baptism, a little girl handed me a “Letter to God” that she had written and wanted me to deliver. After the baptism concluded and the church was empty, I sat alone in a darkened pew and read her letter. In reading it, it provided this “older” adult a sense of awe about what should be our relationship with the Lord: to think that our great God, who created the world, desires to spend His every waking moment in relationship with us!
COURAGE. In the Acts of the Apostles (13:52), Jesus’ disciples (those first Christians) began to move about courageously proclaiming that Jesus was Lord. We are told that “…they were filled with joy and the Holy Spirit.” The witness of the early Christian martyrs standing up for Our Lord Jesus Christ (and giving their own lives) in the midst of a decadent culture echoes what St. Paul (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24) tells his followers; that, under no circumstances, should the followers of Jesus “despise prophetic utterances.” To put it simply, we should never be afraid to speak the truth about Jesus or stand up for Him in the public square.
Given all of this, we fast-forward to today——the proverbial “here and now,” to this time of war, economic challenges, and intense political differences. While not dismissing the severity of our days, a quick scan of human history reveals much of the same and, on many occasions, far worse living situations.
And so, we do well to ask ourselves: Where can we find joy? For an answer to this question, it might be helpful for each of us to step back and look around…
Are we thankful for our families? Are we thankful for our friends? Are we thankful for our community? Are we thankful for our parish? Are we thankful for the dogs who rest their heads upon our laps? Do we realize that the Lord gives each of these blessings to us—-because He loves us?
In our Gospel reading (John 1:6-8, 19-28), the Jews ask John the Baptist a battery of questions followed by one very pointed one: Who are you? With joy, he declares that he is “..the voice of one crying out in the desert…” For he has been given the unique role in Salvation history of pointing out the One who has entered human history to save us!
While John had his role, what is ours? St. John Henry Newman, the 19th-century British cardinal, provides us with the answer: “That God has created us to do him some definite service; he has committed each of us to do some work which he has not committed to another. “
On Rejoice Sunday, may we be grateful for this commission. And joyfully, may we thank God for the many blessings of our lives.