12 December 2021
Zephaniah 3:14-18a Philippians 4:4-7 Luke 3:10-18
Rejoice, the Lord is near
Today is Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday and the theme of joy naturally dominates the liturgy. In the opening prayer we prayed to the Father to help us experience the joys of the salvation Christ has won for us ‘and celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing’. In our first reading the Prophet Zephaniah calls on the people of Israel to let go of all restraint and give full voice to their joy that the Lord, their God, is in their midst as a victorious warrior: ‘Shout for joy, daughter of Zion, Israel, shout aloud! Rejoice, exult with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem’ (Zeph 3:14). The responsorial psalm repeats the exhortation of Zephaniah and, in our second reading, St Paul tells the Christian community in Philippi that he wants them ‘to be always happy in the Lord’ (Phil 4:4). The Gospel passage summarises the message of John the Baptist, announcing the imminent arrival of the Messiah, and exhorting the people to prepare for his coming by practicing justice and helping the poor.
Too often Christianity has been presented as a rather grim and joyless affair, confronting us with guilt and failure. But the reality of sin and failure is merely the preface of the Christian story, not its centre piece. This is the victorious love of God that forgives, heals and makes everything new. It is the experience of this love that is the source of our joy. But what is this joy that is at the heart of the Christian message?
We think of joy very much in association with youthfulness, freshness, innocence. And it is true that joy keeps us young. A joyful person seems always youthful. Like the kiss of the sun on a flower, or a smile lighting up a child’s face, joy transforms. People who are joyful transform those around them. Joy is contagious. In the presence of joyful people, our hearts become lighter and the world around us seems so much brighter. However, Christian joy must not be confused with superficial cheerfulness. It is not the false hilarity of those who ignore the reality of suffering in the world around them or avoid pain in their own lives. To quote the words of Timothy Radcliffe OP, ‘true joy is not the happy clappy jollity of those who go around slapping people on the back and telling them to be happy because Jesus loves them. Nor is it the obligatory cheerfulness referred to by the Irish Poet, Seamus Heaney, when he speaks of ‘the fixed smile of a pre-booked place in Paradise’. No, it is, rather, in the words of John Catoir ‘the awareness of God’s loving presence within you’. And this awareness is a gift of the Holy Spirit.
Christian joy is quite compatible with sorrow and even with anger. As Christians we are called to share not just the passion of Christ, but also his passions – his joy and sorrow and even his anger. These are the passions of those who are alive with the gospel. The joy that Christ brings us is a joy that is found even in the midst of pain and suffering. The most joyful people I have come across in my life as a missionary priest were those who had been profoundly touched by the pain of the world. Barbara McNulty, an Irish Lay Missionary, who worked among the poor in Brazil, writes about how she found joy in the heart of suffering: ‘It is the paradox of joy’, she states, ‘that it is at its most significant in association with suffering. I worked for many years with the sick and the dying in a place where one would expect to find despair and depression; yet because of the warmth of the love all around me I found laughter and hope’ (The Tablet, 16 August, 1980).
As disciples of Jesus, we are invited to experience and share with others a joy that flows from the experience of God’s tender and loving smile as we blossom and flourish in the warmth of God’s delight in us. In the psalms we pray: ‘Let your face shine on us and we shall be saved’ (Ps 80:3). Our lives have been illuminated and transformed by the experience of God’s tender smile. The Church – and that means all of us – has no right to speak about the demands of the Gospel unless we first embody the tenderness and delight of that smile – the source of all true joy.
I will end with a reflection on joy from the pen of Flor McCarthy SDB.
There is a clear note of joy in today’s liturgy.
Joy is a blend of laughter and tears.
It consists of having a love affair with life.
It is having a heart aglow with warmth
for all one’s companions on the road of life.
It is looking for the happiness that comes in small packages,
knowing that big packages are few and far between.
It is making the most of the present,
enjoying what is at hand right now.
Joy is love flowing over into life,
and it can co-exist with pain.
Joy is the flag we fly when Christ, the Prince of Peace
has taken up residence in our hearts.
Michael McCabe SMA, Cork, December 2021
To listen to an alternative Homily from Fr Tom Casey of the SMA Media Centre, Ndola, Zambia please click on the play button below.