by Br Julian McDonald cfc
“I exult for joy because God has clothed me in the garments of salvation and has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity.” Isaiah 61, 1-2, 10-11
“Why are you baptizing if you are not the Christ, and not Elijah, and not the prophet?” John replied: “I baptize with water; but there is one among you who you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, and I am not fit to undo his sandal-strap.” John 1, 6-8, 19-28
Today’s second reading from Thessalonians urges us to be full of joy: “Be joyful always, pray at all times, be thankful in all circumstances. This is what God wants from you in your life in union with Christ Jesus” (1 Thessalonians 5, 17-18). However, my experience tells me that I generally don’t bounce through the day full of joy. Moreover, if I tried to do that, those with whom I live and work might start to become concerned about my emotional stability. And if I were dance into my local parish church for Mass, full of joy and exuding geniality, others in the congregation would start to wonder what had struck me. On the other hand, if I were to go about my day dispensing nothing but doom and gloom, fearful and depressed about all the tragedies and disasters going on in our world, those who know me would have equal cause to be concerned.
So, what exactly is Paul getting at when he urges us to be joyful at all times? He is not blind to the fact that there is plenty in the world around us and in our own lives to trouble and depress us. We also know that there are people we meet who promote a God who is intent on recording all our failures and designing appropriate punishment for them. That kind of religious practice would have us living on the edge of mental illness. And that’s far from Paul’s message. I want to suggest that the key to what he is saying comes a couple of lines after his exhortation to us to be joyful, when he advises: “Test everything, and keep what is good” (1 Thessalonians 5, 21). And there’s certainly nothing good about crippling fear, oppressive religion and psychological depression.
But what about the “be joyful” piece? I suggest it has something to do with a personal readiness to let go of our smoldering angers and our pet whinges; to give up deploring what we dislike in other people; to put a firm check on our inclination for self-pity when our hopes are dashed or our best-laid plans come crashing down; to shrug off wallowing in miserableness. More constructively, it means itemizing all the reasons we have to be grateful and satisfied. That might look a bit artificial at first, but there really are many things in our lives that can cause us to fill up with gratitude and joy. And we don’t have to look far to find them.
We are uplifted when a new baby is born into our families, we are delighted at both the penetrating and naïve questions that children ask us, at the sane way in which they cope with the ogres and monsters of fairy-tales, in the questions they ask about God, in the prayers they make to God: “Dear God, please make my mum not allergic to cats. I really want a cat, and I don’t want my mum to have to move out.”
We rejoice when we see ordinary people triumph over the intricate regulations of bureaucrats, when the injustices of governments are overturned, when asylum seekers are made welcome and treated with dignity, when the prophets of our world persist in calling for justice when their own popularity is declining. We are filled with joy and gratitude when a friend or family member kicks an addiction, when a broken relationship is mended, when someone close to us comes through a long ordeal of chemotherapy.
If we dare to take time to reflect, we will also discover that there are things about God and our religious faith that can fill us with joy and gratitude. It is freeing to come to the realization that God really does love us, has loved us into life through the love of our parents, identifies us with Jesus, our brother, and cannot stop loving us.
Sadly, too many of us are threatened by the image of God with which we have gown up, fearful of how we will be judged when our lives are over. The readings of recent Sundays have made frequent reference to Jesus’ second coming. To conceive of it as an act of destruction is a total contradiction to the notion of God as loving creator. To equate the second coming of Jesus with a nuclear disaster triggered by world leaders competing for power and threatening one another is a denial of a loving God. Any judgement by God will be an act of love, with nothing to do with a struggle for power or a vindication of hatred. Moreover, the second coming of Jesus will focus on the redemption of the entire cosmos, not merely planet earth.
Christmas is just over a week away. It is about the passing on of God’s love to us and our world in the person of Jesus. That was John the Baptist’s insight, and he was prepared to step aside so that others would come to see who Jesus was and experience the love he would offer.
Advent is a time of preparation for us to reflect on how we will open ourselves, yet again, to welcome that love into our hearts and lives, and what we will do to pass it on. Surely that’s plenty to rejoice over.