(Isa.35:1-6a; Jas.5:7-10; Mt.11:2-11)
Today is Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday. This is the day we heartily sing Joy to the World because we’re looking forward to Christmas. Jesus is coming!
But what is joy?
Some people say that joy is happiness. But Henri Nouwen says joy is much deeper than that. Happiness depends on what’s happening around you, but joy is internal. It’s ‘the experience of knowing that you’re unconditionally loved and that nothing … can take that love away from you’. [i]
Others say that joy is pleasure, like a magnificent meal. But C.S. Lewis says that pleasure is more like a substitute for joy. He says that what distinguishes joy from happiness or pleasure is a deep yearning for something agonisingly elusive. It’s the longing for a fulfilment yet to come. [ii]
The Greek word for joy is ‘chara’, which is how we react when we discover the work of God. ‘Chara’ is similar to another Greek word, ‘charis’, which means ‘grace’ or ‘gift’. Together, these words tell us that joy flows when we’re filled with the gift of God’s grace.
St Paul knew this, and that’s why he says that joy is one of the 12 fruits of the Spirit, along with peace and love (Gal.5:22-23). These fruits flow when the Holy Spirit lives in our hearts and we realise that God really is in control of our lives.
Pope St Paul VI once asked: ‘How is it that in our society, with all its wealth, clean water, readily available food, medical achievements and technological advancements – there’s so little joy?’
He says it’s because ‘we’re missing what joy really is’. Our ‘technological society has multiplied our opportunities for pleasure, but it has great difficulty in generating joy. That’s because joy comes from another source.’ [iii]
And what is that source? It’s God.
Some people say that joy means no sadness; that you can’t be both sad and glad at the same time. But Henri Nouwen disagrees. He says that sorrow and joy can exist together, and they are often contained within some of our deepest life experiences, such as witnessing the birth of a child or the death of a friend.
Rick Warren, the American pastor and author, says that we usually think that life comes in hills and valleys, but really it’s more like train tracks. Every day good things happen, bringing us pleasure and contentment and beauty.
But at the same time, painful things also happen, disappointing us, hurting us and filling us with sorrow. These two tracks – joy and sorrow – run parallel to each other all through our lives.
That’s why, he says, when we’re having an amazing experience, we often realise that it’s not perfect. And while we’re experiencing something painful, we realise that there’s still beauty and loveliness to be found. [iv]
Rick Warren says that when you look down train tracks towards the horizon, they become one, and that’s how it will be for us, too. One day, our parallel tracks of joy and sorrow will merge into one. It will all come together for us when we finally meet Jesus, and everything will start to make sense.
Someone once said that if you build a wall to keep out the sadness, you’ll also keep out the joy. They belong together.
But joy doesn’t simply happen. Henri Nouwen says nothing happens automatically in the spiritual life. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day. It’s a choice based on the knowledge that we belong to God and nothing, not even death, can take God away from us.
In 1945, before the Nazis executed him, Alfred Delp SJ was locked up in prison in Germany. The conditions were awful, but he still wrote, ‘every now and then my whole being is flooded with pulsating life and my heart can scarcely contain the delirious joy … Suddenly … my spirits soar again and there’s not a doubt in my mind that all God’s promises hold good’.
He was filled with joy because he chose to put his life in God’s hands. ‘That’s the point’, he wrote. [v] Our happiness is inextricably linked with God.
When we choose to accept God in our life, he opens our eyes to his grace and power in the world, and he fills us with joy (Rom.15:13).
So, here’s the message for today: joy doesn’t come from our secular world. It comes from God. And for our joy to be complete (1Jn.1:4), we must choose to accept him.
If you want real joy, put your life in God’s hands (Is.41:10; Jn.10:28).
[i] Nouwen, H., Christensen, M.J & Laird, R. ‘The Heart of Henri Nouwen – His Words of Blessing’. Crossroad Publishing, 2003.
[ii] CS Lewis, quoted in Terry Lindvall, Surprised by Laughter: The Comic World of CS Lewis. Thomas Nelson: Nashville, 1996, p.56.
[iii] Pope Paul VI, Gaudete in Domino (On Christian Joy), Apostolic Exhortation, 1975.