Readings: Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28.
“The Joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” These lines, which open Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium, capture the spirit of the third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday. With St. Paul, the Church invites us to “rejoice always” as we await the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ (second reading).
Sometimes, however, amidst the difficulties, dryness and emptiness we experience in life, the invitation to rejoice may seem rather contrived and insensitive. It feels as if we are being dragged to a party when there is a funeral at home. I once attended a Eucharistic celebration during which the catechist kept chiding the women for not ululating during the Gloria and thanksgiving hymn. “It’s a big day today”, he reminded them, “so we need to rejoice!” Then the women would momentarily let out a weak ululation before going back to their sombre selves. The ululation was not from their heart – it was a mere act of obedience rather than a genuine response to an experience of salvation.
Naming our Sorrows
Sometimes we do not experience real joy because the Good News of Christ is not given an opportunity to address our real sorrows. One cannot rejoice truly if one has not been liberated from that which takes away one’s joy. The first reading from the prophet Isaiah reminds us that God wants to deal with our sorrows so as to bring us joy: The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favour from the LORD and a day of vindication by our God. The Gospel is addressed to our poverty, our brokenness, our captivity, our prison sentences and our indebtedness. In the presence of God, we have to name the things that rob us of joy. Only then can we experience the joy of the Gospel.
God’s Love, Source of True Joy
These days, there are many self-styled prophets and evangelists who claim to have received God’s anointing to heal and to prophesy prosperity to people. These ‘prophets’ are drawing crowds to themselves partly because they deal with concrete issues such as unemployment, disease, challenges in business, childlessness and inability to find a husband, to name but a few problems. The truth, however, is that material wealth and good health are not enough to guarantee us lasting joy. It often happens upon finding a husband, a woman becomes saddened by the challenges of married life. One can spend one’s whole life chasing the mirage of joy in the desert of illusion. As Pope Francis remarks, “Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could be happy if a thousand conditions were met” (Evangelii Gaudium, n. 7).
The deepest quest of human beings is not wealth or health; it is love – the assurance of being loved! True joy flows from knowing that I am loved in spite of my strengths and weaknesses. One can find joy in prison as long as he or she has a friend who cares about him or her in the correctional facility. One can experience true joy in difficulties as long as one is surrounded by people who love him or her. A party at which there is plenty of food and drink but no one to talk to is as good as hell. Christ came to proclaim the Good News that God loves us, in spite of our sins. The love of God is the power that heals our broken-hearts, breaks the prison gates of perpetual dissatisfaction, and declares an end to the captivity of hatred. When we experience the love of God, we can truly rejoice and give thanks in all circumstances. As Pierre Teilhard de Chardin once said, “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God.”
May we, during this Advent, experience the joy that God alone can give. May we bring joy to our neighbour.