The third Sunday of Advent is Gaudete Sunday, from the first word (in Latin) of the Entrance Antiphon of the Eucharistic Liturgy: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say, rejoice! Indeed, the Lord is near.” The rose-colored candle that we light and the rose-colored vestments worn by the priest symbolize the joy we are to express. We pray in the Opening Prayer that we “attain the joys of so great a salvation” and celebrate them with “glad rejoicing.”
Joy is a topic worthy of our reflection. On the one hand, Pope Francis has made joy a key theme of his pontificate. His first apostolic exhortation was entitled “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelii Gaudium). Francis keeps insisting that a compelling witness to the power of faith is a joy-filled life. On the other hand, we are keenly aware that much that goes on in our world does not evoke joy. How many millions of people live in tragic circumstances in which joy would seem to be a delusional response?
To be clear, the type of joy to which Francis refers is not the ephemeral sense of happiness I feel when, for instance, someone pays me a compliment, or my favorite team wins its game, or I’m glad when it’s Friday. That sense of joy is short-lived, because the source of the joy—though not inconsequential—is not overly significant.
The type of joy we’re called to embody is more, I dare say, dispositional. Can you think of a person whom you would describe as typically happy? Someone who has a positive outlook, who characteristically sees the glass as half full? Who invariably has a good word to say about others? If someone you know fits this description, then ask yourself: What makes him or her tick? From where does his or her joy come?
I will offer a theologically-laden guess to answer those questions. It comes from my reflection on the writings of St. Paul. Interestingly, he lists joy as one of the ninefold “fruit” of the Holy Spirit, immediately following “love”—the first fruit named—and right before “peace” (Gal 5:22-23). Happiness and a sense of well-being are things for which all human beings long. That’s how we’re “wired,” so to speak.
People seek to find joy and peace in many ways, most of which are fruitless. That’s because joy and peace are not things to be found or discovered. Joy and peace “find” us. In other words, joy and peace are consequential. Joy and peace are what I experience as I grow more and more into becoming the person God has made and called me to be.
The starting point for growing into that person is to welcome within us, at the inner core of our being, the presence of the Holy Spirit, whom Paul describes as “the love of God” poured into our hearts (Rom 5:5). If Jesus is Emmanuel, “God-with-us” (Matt 1:23), then the Holy Spirit can be understood as “God-within-us,” the life of grace we nourish in prayer and in receiving the sacraments. It is no coincidence that Paul begins his list of the “fruit” of the Spirit with love.
Young children who know they are loved unconditionally by their parents have a great sense of confidence. Not self-conscious or self-doubting, they go about with vim and vigor, sharing who they are as well as their gifts with others. Each one of us can be that child, as we have within us the Holy Spirit, the very love shared between Jesus and the Father. Go back to that person whom you identified as deeply happy. That person lives out of the fundamental reality of knowing him- or herself as loved abundantly by God.
Such joyful love has a spontaneous quality about it, like the blossoming of nature Isaiah describes in the first reading, a blooming that occurs because of the presence of God. It is also marked by patience—especially in allowing others to grow into their best selves—as the second reading from the Letter of James teaches.
This joyful love is what marked the person and ministry of Jesus. When asked, in today’s Gospel, by disciples of the imprisoned John the Baptist, whether or not he was the Messiah, Jesus responded by telling them to look at the healing and wholeness he brings to others, leading them to joy. Jesus goes on to pay John a great compliment: among those born of women, there is none greater. And yet, “the least in the kingdom of heaven is greater than he.”
That latter is a reference to folks like you and me, to the recipients of God’s love poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit, whom the risen Lord gladly bestows upon us. Greater than John the Baptist! For that, we can be glad and rejoice—and live in such a way as to bear witness to so great a gift of love.