Advent By Candlelight Reflection on Joy

This was an Advent By Candlelight Reflection given at St. Norbert Parish in Florissant, MO. The reading for the Prayer Service was John 15:11-17.

     This past fall, the day before school started, I had speaking engagement in New York. I flew out of Lambert at 5:00 am, arrived in New York, was driven to the school, gave 2, 1 hour long presentations in 3 hours, and was back at LaGuardia airport sitting in the Delta lounge waiting by 2:30 for my 7 o’clock flight back to St. Louis. Needless to say I was not in the most joyful of spirits, so I intentionally tried to hide in a corner with my computer in the hopes that no one would talk to me. Well it didn’t take long for a man to see my collar, come over, ask me if I wanted a drink and begin small chat. Very quickly he found out that I was from St. Louis and the topic immediately turned to Ferguson. After a couple of drinks he came to the conclusion that there must be somethings which unite all of us as Americans and so he asked me if I believed their was one common ground amongst all Americans. After pausing to think for a moment I came to the conclusion that there are a great many things that divide us as a nation but I truly believe that regardless of our differences we are all searching for joy.

     Everybody in our world is searching for true and lasting joy: thus, while we may not realize it, all of us are starving for God. Now I’m sure many of you are asking how can that be, there are countless people who don’t seem to care at all about God. While people may not think that they are searching for God they are searching to be fulfilled and as St. Augustine famously surmised our hearts are restless until they rest in you O Lord. If we look at the world around us we see this endless pursuit for lasting happiness in man’s desire for material pleasure, in the explosion of addictions and in the rampant consumerism that plagues our country. Yet, matter where we look, no amount of material pleasure will bring any of us lasting joy because material things can never satisfy spiritual needs.

     This past Sunday we lit the pink candle on the advent wreath and celebrated Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday, which takes its name from the command of St. Paul to rejoice always. Is that even possible? Can we truly rejoice always? Is St. Paul asking the impossible from us? If we want to rejoice always we must first understand what joy is. Merriam-Webster defines joy as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.”[1] While many Christian religions define joy in the same way, we as Catholics know joy is something much greater. After all if joy was just an emotion wouldn’t it be impossible to rejoice always. I mean let’s be honest, there are different seasons to life. Sometimes life moves forward with ease, we feel close to God and the days just seem to pass smoothly, but there are other times when life is much more difficult and God appears far away, our prayer becomes difficult and other people seem to be a bother to us. Regardless of where we are in life, if we are to follow the command of St. Paul we need to experience joy in all moments of life even when our emotions are not feeling joyful. If joy, then, is not simply a happy feeling in response to worldly fortune, then what is true joy?

     If we want a true understanding of joy we must turn to the Christmas miracle, we must gaze upon the little Child laying in the manager and ask ourselves why would God come down to earth to become man. Jesus is clear in today’s gospel reading from St John that He calls us His friends and He has demonstrated the depth of that friendship by giving up His life for us, for “no one has greater love than this, to lay down one’s life for one’s friends?” My brothers and sisters the whole Christian way of life is rooted in the truth that God became man. That child laying in a manger and the man hanging on the cross both boldly proclaim that God cares. He came into this world in less than ideal circumstances out of love, to live for us. Regardless of the situations we find ourselves in we can rejoice because God shared it all, even His own son. Simply said “With Him everything. Without Him nothing. He is the Lord.”[2]

     When viewed through the lens of the Christmas story joy takes on a whole new meaning. Joy is no longer some superficial feeling, but rather a gift from God himself, a fruit of the Holy Spirit. Regardless of the circumstances of our life we have a reason for joy and that reason is the Godchild laying in the manger.

     To experience that joy we need a radically new of looking at life, we need to look at life through the lens of the Christmas story, because Christmas demands a radical reorientation of our personal lives. When we look at the child in the manger we cannot help but recognize that He came to live for us, so now we must live for others. Just as Christ emptied Himself completely for us, so now we must empty ourselves of any self-seeking and imitate His example of living for others. Joy is not something we have only when our lives are in order. Joy is a gift of the Holy Spirit, which springs from a relationship with Christ, but that relationship with Jesus requires effort on our part.

     If we want to experience the true joy of Christmas we must live our lives like Jesus. We must imitate Christ who calls us friends. We must imitate Christ by laying down our lives for others, after all no one has greater love than this, to lay down, one’s life for one’s friends. Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel reading from St. John that the key to true joy is to keep His commandment, to love one another as He has loved us. If we want to rejoice always, we must be like Jesus. We must live for others and not for ourselves.

     Before we can truly imitate Christ and live for others we must first enter into relationship with Him, who no longer calls us slaves, but friends. We have done nothing to earn friendship with Christ, yet He freely chooses to give us that relationship in our baptism, when He made us a member of His body and poured His Spirit into us. Christ has given us the gift of friendship with Him, so we must work to nourish that relationship. All relationships require that we communicate with the other. If we want joy we must take time to be alone with Jesus in prayer. If you don’t know where to start perhaps start small, make a concrete resolution tonight to improve your relationship one small step at a time and if you struggle with that make it your resolution to simply ask Jesus everyday for the desire to deepen your relationship with Him. Talk to Jesus, listen to Jesus and allow Him to make you a man or woman of joy. As we begin to grow closer to Christ we will begin to see that at times we fall short of true friendship with Christ and like all of our relationships we will need ask forgiveness from Him. If we truly want to deepen our relationship with Christ and thus experience authentic joy we must come frequently to the sacrament of confession and encounter our friend, Jesus, in the person of the priest and ask forgiveness from Him.

     When we make time with Jesus a daily priority our own priorities will sort themselves out. We will find the void in our life and fill it with what we were made for, a relationship with Jesus, rather than other superficial band aids like food, drink, complaining, or the many addictions that plague our culture. Even when all of the trials of life seem to be swelling up around us let us look to the child in the manger and be patient with hope for we know the dark night will give way to the light of true beauty. While no material success can lead to true joy, time with Jesus means joy, a joy that is addictive and will attract new followers to Christ and lead to peace on earth. Our “faith is joy, therefore it makes beauty.”[3] “Our faith, too begins with wonder at the very fact of creation and at the beauty of God who makes himself visible.”[4] My brothers and sisters, when we have a personal encounter with the Lord in the Nativity scene our lives can never be the same, let us make this Christmas the best Christmas ever by making a firm resolution to rid ourselves of any behavior that causes us to turn in on ourselves rather then live outwardly for others so that our sadness can be turned to light and we can truly “Rejoice in the Lord always.”[5]

[1] http://www.merriam-webster.com/dictionary/joy

[2] St. Faustina Kowalska. Diary of Saint Maria Faustina Kowalska. Stockbridge:Marian Press. (2011). pg. 161.

[3] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Church Fathers and Teachers. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. (2010) pg. 31.

[4] Joseph Cardinal Ratzinger. Church Fathers and Teachers. San Francisco: Ignatius Press. (2010) pg. 103.

[5] Philippians 4:4

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