Today is called in Latin Gaudete Sunday and in English Rejoice Sunday. The theme of joy is everywhere in the readings and prayers of our Advent Mass.
The very first words of our celebration, the Entrance Antiphon, insist on the command: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.
It is perhaps unusual to have someone order you to rejoice because we belong to a time which believes that joy is mostly a feeling and, as we all know, feelings can’t be controlled.
Yet we can be joyful even when we don’t feel good – even when we are suffering.
In my day-to-day work as chaplain to a large hospital I meet, broadly speaking, two kinds of patients. On the one hand I meet the frightened, confused or angry patient and his family. Why is this happening? How can there be a God? What have I (my mother, father, son, daughter, etc) ever done to deserve this?
On the other hand I encounter the patient who, in the midst of the most serious suffering, can manage a smile and say: God is so good, Father, and so wise. He has blessed me so much in my life and I trust him completely.
Far be it from me to make a judgment on people but the obvious conclusion I draw is that is possible for joy to co-exist with suffering. Which leads me to state the obvious - our joy has its origins in a person other than ourselves and our volatile feelings; our joy has its origins in Jesus.
The Entrance Antiphon tells us to rejoice because the Lord is near. The degree of our joy is directly related to our closeness to Jesus and to his closeness to us. There is a common saying which emphasises this truth - 'Joy is an infallible sign of the presence of God.'
So people who are closest to this person Jesus experience the greatest joy even if it is the crucified and suffering Jesus they are close to – it is still Jesus – and he still gives joy – even from the Cross. Joy transcends every pain and suffering, even death.
This joy, of course, is more than a happy, outward smile.
I remember well how the elderly seminary staff used to celebrate the great feasts of the Church at the early morning Mass. With their sleepy 7am faces they would mournfully proclaim: Today is a great feast which fills us with joy, let us celebrate!
I read a humorous story on a web site about a famous preacher who was trying to teach his students to make their facial expressions harmonise with what they were speaking about. 'When you speak of heaven,' he said, 'let your face light up, let it be joyful and rejoicing.' Then he went on to say 'but when you speak of hell – well, then, then your ordinary face will do.'
So, certainly, we can be joyful in the midst of suffering and turmoil so long as we are close to Christ. This is the secret of the saints. They reached such a degree of closeness to their friend Jesus that suffering only increased their joy because it made it easier for them to identify with him.
The secret of the saints must be our secret too. As we grow closer to him our joy will increase. A previous spiritual director of mine once told me there are two ways of getting warm. He said: We can jump up and down furiously on the spot or exercise our body in some other way. We will certainly warm up and stay warm as long as we keep exercising. But then we grow tired and we grow cold again. The second way is much easier – we stand close to the fire – and we warm up without any effort at all.
Jesus, of course, is the fire which warms us. We need to get close to him – to know him as our personal friend.
So let’s list again, the classical ways of getting close to him.
- Remove the obstacles that stand between us and our friend. In other words, remove sin from our lives. Sin is the only, I repeat, the only barrier to closeness with Jesus. The first step is usually to make a good confession.
- Be where he wants us to be at each moment of the day, faithful to the duties of our life. He doesn’t want a young mother at morning Mass if she should be at home helping the kids get ready for school - or a sick man to fast when he should be eating good food to recover his health.
- Be faithful to the Sunday Mass because faithfulness to Mass is faithfulness to Jesus, as well as to the community.
- Spend quality, regular, prolonged time with our friend to the extent that we can. In other words, pray! He asks it of us. It shows we love him. It increases our love for him.
- Love our neighbour - forgiving, understanding, accepting - not judging, but always encouraging. This is the greatest way to show gratitude to God for all that he has done for us.
What will be the end result of our efforts? It will be holiness, and joy, and peace in our day - even when we suffer!