On Great Balls of Fire
[Zeph.3:14-18; Phil.4:4-7; Lk.3:1-18]
Today is the third Sunday of Advent and Gaudete Sunday. Pope Francis calls this ‘the Sunday of Joy’. Why? It’s because Gaudete means ‘rejoice’.
We rejoice because we’re halfway through Advent and Jesus is on his way. We rejoice because God is in our lives and a holy fire is burning in our hearts.
That’s what the prophet Zephaniah’s saying in our first reading, when he tells us to ‘shout for joy and exult with all your heart, for the Lord your God is in your midst’.
To emphasise our joy, we wear rose-coloured vestments today. This comes from Isaiah who said ‘the desert shall rejoice, and blossom as the rose’ (Is.35:1-6,10). [i]
One important element of joy is laughter. The French writer Nicholas Chamfort said that the most wasted of days is one without laughter. When you laugh, your brain produces natural chemicals that lift your mood and relieve your pain and suffering. It can transform your emotions, cure illnesses and change the way you see the world.
St Philip Neri (1515-95) knew that laughter is good medicine, and that’s why he’s the patron saint of joy. He spent most of his life in Rome and was ordained a priest at 35. He used to encourage people’s faith in unusual ways, including by making them laugh.
He once sent a friend to get a bottle of wine, and insisted that he sample every wine in the shop before buying it. Sometimes St Philip shaved off half his beard and did funny dances to make people laugh. And sometimes he set penances for young men that required them to make fools of themselves in public.
Why did he do this? It’s said that he needed these jokes more badly than anyone else, because his love for God was so intense. He sometimes needed laughter to distract him and help him focus on what he had to do.
But joy isn’t just laughter. Pope Francis says that Christians breathe joy, but joy doesn’t mean living from laugh to laugh. It’s much deeper than that.
Joy isn’t just laughter. It’s much deeper than that.
‘Joy isn’t entertainment,’ he says. Rather, ‘Christian joy is peace, peace that’s deeply rooted… in the heart, the peace that only God can give.’
But fostering Christian joy isn’t easy. Pope Francis says that Christians must remember what God has done for us, and in that remembering be rejuvenated. In today’s culture, he says, people often seem to be satisfied by mere fragments of pleasure, but that pleasure isn’t truly satisfying or lasting. It leaves people restless and uneasy. [ii]
CS Lewis wrote that true joy is the ache we feel in our hearts for something beyond this world. It’s not a satisfied desire but an unsatisfied desire; a deep longing for God, a hungry pursuit of God’s heart that never ends. And the Holy Spirit uses this restlessness to awaken our spiritual hunger.
Lewis said that when little moments of life… like the way the light falls on a summer evening… stir you with a deep longing that’s hard to define, don’t look to earthly pursuits to fill the void. Instead, allow the ache to push you deeper into your relationship with God. Pursue him. Allow that longing for him to become the hottest fire in your heart. [iii]
This is the joy we all long for; the joy that fills us with unimaginable love not only for God himself, but for all his creation, including those around us.
St Philip Neri was often said to have had a heart of fire. But these weren’t mere words, for people noticed that he was always warm and often flushed. He often walked about with his cassock unbuttoned at his chest, even in winter. When he preached or prayed his heart used to beat violently, and some people could hear his heart beating across the room. No-one knew why, until he was on his deathbed. [iv]
That’s when Philip revealed that on Pentecost Eve in 1544, he’d been praying that God would give him the Holy Spirit. Then he saw the Spirit approach him as a ball of fire. It entered his mouth and went straight to his heart, doubling its size and knocking him off his feet. At his autopsy they found that two of his ribs had been broken and had formed an arch over his enlarged heart. [v]
As St Paul says, when we welcome God into our lives, he opens our eyes to his grace and power and he fills us with joy (Rom.15:13).
[i] Carol Reynolds, Journey through Advent. Silver Age Music, Bowie Texas. 2015:58.