Today we gather to celebrate what is called “Joyful Sunday” (Gaudete Sunday in Latin). It gets its name from the themes of the first two readings, one from Zephaniah and one from Paul. The Church even lets us wear a different colored vestment today, signaling that Christmas is near, signaling that the joy we have been anticipating is right around the corner.
But will it last? Or will Christmas come and go and leave no mark? If it’s happiness we seek, probably. But if it’s joy we seek, then maybe not – not if we realize where to find that joy and how to sustain it, how to keep being joyful throughout the year, throughout our lives – not just at certain “special” times.
As you can tell, I’m making a distinction between happiness and joy. Happiness, it seems to me, is more of an external sort of thing. It’s what happens TO us. It’s what we feel when things outside of ourselves go the way we want, or provide us with some moment of fun or excitement or contentment. But that means that as soon as those things are absent, so is the happiness we were experiencing. It fades. It weakens. It disappears. And we start planning when the next time will come when we can have that same experience, that same feeling again. And if it sounds like a kind of drug, you’re on to something else. Happiness can be a lot like that, can be one of those things that we can’t wait to get the next dose of. It can be an unhealthy way to live if that’s all we seek.
But joy? That’s something else.
My dear people of God, joy comes from the inside, comes from what’s going on in our hearts and minds and souls. And for the Christian, for you and me, joy starts with the realization of what our God has done for us in the person of Jesus, starts with the realization of how near our God is to us, and how much he loves us, and how he was (and is) willing to do anything for us. Joy comes with not simply knowing “about” Jesus, but with actually knowing him, being in relationship with him and accepting him as Lord and Savior.
That’s what John was trying to accomplish in the desert. They came to see HIM – but he quickly diverted their attention elsewhere, tried to get them to be ready to encounter the one who would baptize them “with the Holy Spirit and fire”.
So is that the answer? Do we experience joy only when we are thinking about Jesus, only when we are contemplating what he has done for us, only when we acknowledge him as Lord and Savior? Does joy end there? Or is there more?
Of course there’s more. Accepting Jesus is just the starting point of a life of true joy, just the beginnings of what it means to be a joyful person, just a launching pad to experiencing even more joy than we could probably even imagine. Put it another way – belief and trust in Jesus is the seed of a joyful life. But that joy grows only when we . . . love, only when we learn to become our brother’s keeper.
In some respects, it’s almost counterintuitive – but so are many things of God. The last shall be first, turn the other cheek, love your enemies, all that stuff. And experiencing joy is kind of like one of those upside-down teachings of Jesus, like those parables he told that sometimes leave us scratching our heads.
You see, once we know and accept and are grateful for who Jesus is and what he has done for us, once that joy has taken root in us the way to make it grow is through the choices we make. It doesn’t grow because of what happens around us. It simply grows every time we love another person. It grows every time we forgive. It grows every time we show mercy. It grows every time we show compassion, or are generous, or reach out to someone who is lonely, or embrace someone who is broken and full of sorrow. In other words, be a true neighbor to someone in need.
OUR ACTIONS are what truly allow the joy within us to remain and grow and infuse every corner of our lives. Have you ever volunteered for some sort of good cause? Maybe it was at a shelter or a food pantry or a hospital or a nursing home. Do you remember how you felt when the event was done, or the meals were served, or the homeless people were bedded down for the night?
A Nigerian Billionaire who personally donated 200 wheelchairs to disabled children in Nigeria said, “I saw the strange glow of happiness on the faces of these children. I saw them all sitting on the wheelchairs, moving around and having fun.
It was as if they had arrived at a picnic spot where they are sharing a jackpot winning. I felt REAL joy inside me. When I decided to leave one of the kids grabbed my legs. I tried to free my legs gently but the child stared at my face and held my legs tightly.
I bent down and asked the child: Do you need something else? The answer this child gave me not only made me happy but also changed my attitude to life completely. This child said:
“I want to remember your face so that when I meet you in heaven, I will be able to recognize you and thank you once again.”
Do you remember how you felt when the sick children you visited returned to their hospital rooms with big smiles on their faces, or how the seniors couldn’t stop humming after you sang carols to them? Do you remember what that was like? I remember my recent visit to Bill Mutschler at a facility on the 18th Street, here in Wytheville. He was so happy for my visit that I spend about 15 minutes chatting with him. He told me that God brought me to Wytheville because of him. I was happy for visiting him and he was just too happy for my visit.
That’s joy. That “I can’t explain it” feeling deep down, that grateful heart that feels like it’s bursting, that intense desire to wake up each day eager to make a real difference in someone’s life, eager to shower the world with acts of kindness.
It’s a great feeling. It’s really the living God alive and well within us. It’s the transformation that takes place within us every time we seek to do right for another person, every time we put our own needs and wants before those of others.
In other words, true joy is more of a way of life than a feeling. It’s a way of being that is independent of whatever difficulties and challenges may come our way. It’s not what happens TO us. It’s what happens IN us.
As Paul said in the Second Reading from his Letter to the Philippians – right after telling his readers to rejoice,
“Your kindness should be known to all.”
And so, as we close out these last couple of weeks before Christmas, as we eagerly await the joy that comes with these holiest of days, comes with our perfect gift of Jesus – let’s make sure that our joy lasts longer than a moment or a day or a week, that it doesn’t simply fade away as do our countless pursuits of happiness.
And the only way to do that is to pay the gift forward, strive to live lives of kindness and compassion and mercy and generosity and love – sharing Jesus and everything he stands for with a world in desperate need of him.
Who knows what change that might bring about in each of us? Rejoice!