This past summer I had the honor of spending 8 weeks in the Villa de Lleva Colombia. Villa de Lleva is a Spanish colonial town in South America with its cobblestone streets, huge town square with 500 year old Church and mountains on all sides it makes you feel like you are living in a Hollywood film.
While I had any modern amenity I could ever ask for I didn’t have to go far to see utter poverty; I only had to walk a half of a mile to see, houses with no roofs, trash in the mud streets, etc. I have to be honest, the idea of spending 8 weeks, working in a foreign country, a country which I did not know the language, customs, or even what to expect was not high on my list of fun things to do for a summer. From the second the plane landed in Bogota I felt lost. Spending 8 weeks in a country that is suffering the effects of drug wars and utter poverty found a way to suck out what little joy I seemed to have.
In that time down in Colombia I was honored to work with a girl’s orphanage about an hour away from where I lived. I looked forward to visiting the orphanage because it was my oasis away from the devastation I was living amongst and was one of the few places where I experienced joy. These girls, who had gone through so much, still exuberated some of the most joy I have ever seen and as much as I resisted it this joy was contagious. I remember talking with one of the little girls who told me of how she hid in a closet with her sister and watched as her parents were both murdered, spent the night in the house with their dead parents, went to school the next day only to not be believed by their teachers, returned home to spend another night with their dead parents until fortunate their teachers decided to check out the girls story the next day. As I listened to this little 11 year old girl tell me this story from two years ago I wanted to cry yet I couldn’t help but notice how joyful she remained while describing that horrific day, so I asked her in my broken Spanish “esto es muy triste, ¿cómo puedes ser tan alegre?” “That is so sad. How can you be so joyful?” To my surprise she responded that the sisters at the orphanage were her new mothers and that God was her father. I was speechless and immediately felt bad that I was being so down over some simple inconveniences while she was able to keep such joy in the midst of such tragedy. Needless to say from that moment on I focused on remaining joyful even in the midst of some simple struggles.
As Christians we often need to be reminded that we are called to be joyful people. To be a Christian means to be joyful. This does not mean we need to skip around the church. No, we know all of us in this Church are experiencing trouble and tragedy in our life. Maybe some of us are struggling financially, for others of us the holiday season has us feeling down, others maybe struggling with sickness, and just maybe for some of us we will be celebrating the holidays without someone whom we celebrated last year due to death. I’m a practical man, I realize we all have troubles, but our challenge as Christians is to live out joy in the midst of our struggles.
Personally I love reading passages from the Old Testament in preparation for Christmas because it reminds us that God is in the particulars. As I read the stories of sin, failure, death, and forgiveness in the Old Testament in the light of the coming of Christ at Christmas I am reminded that through all the suffering of the Old Testament God was there in the midst of the particulars with a plan. So too today; God is in the particulars of our lives, whether good or bad, with a plan. His plan may not make everything all right from a worldly standpoint because His is not an earthly plan but His is an eternal plan and for that we have no reason not to rejoice.
To be a Christian we must be joyful. In fact when we lose our joyful spirit it is a sign that we are not living our lives as Christians should. You see, if we really believe what we profess in our Catholic faith we have no excuse not to be joyful. You and I are not composites of dirt or even creatures left alone on this earth. No you and I are willed and loved by God; made in His image and likeness. God has made us and has a plan for us. You and I are pilgrims on a journey with God which He plans for us to end in the endless joy of heaven. Our faith teaches that God became one of us, a man, to save us so we can live with Him forever. What excuse do we have not to be joyful?
Said in another way … at the day of our baptism and again on the day of our Confirmation the Holy Spirit entered into our hearts. The Holy Spirit who is God, a God who is joy Himself, entered into our hearts and dwells there unless we separate ourselves from that love by mortal sin in which case all we have to do is go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation to welcome Him back. With Joy Himself dwelling within us, we as Christians cannot help but be joyful; it is who we are. In fact a failure to be joyful should be cause for us to examine our conscience to see if we may need to go to the sacrament of reconciliation. I don’t know about you but it seems like every time I go to the Sacrament of Reconciliation there is a feeling of joy that wells up inside of me.
It is not enough that this joy be kept to ourselves, no if joy is the result of the truth of the Good News it must be shared with others. The example par excellence of sharing Christian joy is our Blessed Mother. After hearing the news that she would be the mother of God, what does she do? She goes to Elizabeth to share that joy. At the cross amidst the unthinkable agony of seeing her son crucified our Blessed mother stays and rather than cause a scene she remains a pillar for others to lean on through the pain of witnessing the death of Christ. She silently manifested true Christian joy by trusting in God’s plan and knowing God was present even in the midst of the suffering.
If you are anything like me there are moments in your life when we can feel tempted not to be joyful, there are moments like my Colombia experience that make you want to lose that joy. It is precisely in these Colombian experience moments that we need to look to the child Jesus in the manger and remind ourselves we have no excuse not to be joyful. If the Father really sent His Son into the world to suffer, die and rise for us as we already profess, no matter how tough the going gets we know the victory has already been won by the child in the manger; joy has defeated sorrow. As we prepare these final days of Advent for the coming of the God-man, Jesus Christ, at Christmas let us examine our lives to see how we can better express the true joy of this Christmas season, the joy of God who dwells in us and journeys with us through the particulars of life.