Michael M. Burke, O. P., D. Min.
Rejoice In ALL Circumstances
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Third Sunday in Advent, 2005
Rejoice In ALL Circumstances

        When you hear St. Paul say to the Thessalonians, ‘Brothers and Sisters: Rejoice always,’ do you think, ‘Well that sounds good, but it isn’t very realistic? How about the times when my car breaks down, my roof is leaking and I’m overdrawn at the bank?’  Today we are told that we, indeed, should rejoice always, ‘in all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.’ (1Thessalonians 5:16-24) For a moment think about your life and I will think of mine as we hear this challenge and admonition to rejoice always.

        Joy!  How often do you experience ‘joy’?  I’m not talking about feeling good, when everything is going right, the kids are behaving, the kitchen is clean, we’re having a night off and a vacation is in sight.  No, joy is a gift from the Spirit of God that enables to believe and know and yes, even feel, that even when circumstances are not going well, either inside of me or outside of me, that all will be well. Joy is different than a grin or a feeling.  It is a deep gift, a conviction, but something we know inside of us that God is in control; it all doesn’t depend on me.  It is not quite the same as peace, for it is names as a unique gift, but it is close to peace.  It must be a sister to peace. 

        We live in very, very troubled times.  Wars continue in Iraq, the Middleast, suicide bombers give their lives to kill even more people, violence increases in all forms constantly.  People are poor and hungry in countries distant from our own and even here, an affluent and powerful country, we are dismayed by divorce, broken families, children without parents and grave injustice between the rich and the poor. 

        In the Christmas season we all love to hear the bells, smell the smells of spice and sweetness and see the designs of green and red.  My thought is that much of this delight is not very deep.  Does all the commercialism and the enticing beauty that surrounds it address the pain and injustice that is calling out for attention?  I’m thinking that it may be a sort of escape for a month from the reality of what really needs to be addressed.  In regards to joy, I question that all the song and dance is really deeply joy.    No wonder there is a big let down on January 2nd when we must return to face the ‘real music’ which is off key and dissonant compared to the yuletide song.

        This is not to sound like Scrooge, but to awaken us to a gift from the Spirit that money cannot buy.  Joy is always there for us, even when we know that we are far from a just society where everyone is fed and clothed and welcomed.  We can certainly sing the songs of the season, but we can sing with joy when we are connected to the Spirit of God who calls us to tend to the needs of society and address its injustices.

        Our Advent prophet, Isaiah adds to our understanding of joy.  He writes ‘The spirit of the Lord God is upon me, because the LORD has anointed me; he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.  I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul…’ (Isaiah 61: 1-2A, 10-11)

        We notice that  Isaiah is totally aware of the Spirit of God, the Lord’s anointing and that from this awareness he reaches out to the poor with the Word of salvation, healing for the hurting and freedom for all imprisoned behind physical bars or emotional bars.  His rejoicing is ‘in the Lord,’ his God.

        This may sound obvious, but it really is the key.  There is no joy or real rejoicing apart from being ‘in the Lord’ and it is ‘in the Lord’ that we are given a share of God’s own joy.  More specifically, joy comes from the Spirit of God.  In another place in Scripture Paul speaks of joy in Galatians, Chapter five, which bears reading in its entirety, vv. 22 and following, ‘…the fruit of the spirit is love, JOY, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control.’ 

        There it is, our ‘joy,’ nestled among love, peace and the other gifts of the Spirit. Incidentally, in theological language, joy is one of the ‘Fruits of the Spirit,’ to distinguish them from the seven ‘Gifts’ of the Holy Spirit.   If joy is a fruit then it must be connected to the tree that bears it and this tree is the life and risen humanity of Christ himself who gave himself in love for us in the midst of the most unspeakable suffering and injustice.

        The tree of the cross gives life and fruit to us.  The Spirit that gives us joy is the Spirit that was released upon the world when Christ died and was raised by the Father.  Joy is sourced in the Risen Christ and flows from his sacred wounds and loving passion for us.  There must have been times for Jesus when his own joy was deeply submerged beneath his own suffering and feelings of abandonment.  When he surrendered to the Father’s will and went forward with the gift of his life he must have felt joy.

There is a clue here that suffering and joy are not separate.  It is from the suffering that Jesus embraced with love for his Father and us that joy was released into the world.  We can suffer and if it is in love then we can have joy at the same time.  I always think of the woman I met many years ago when I used to preach informally in people’s homes as part of a parish mission.  She was confined to a wheel chair with crippling rheumatoid arthritis.  She couldn’t move much at all and it was apparent that she had to be in pain.  Yet, she radiated a look of joy. 

        I remember this woman because to me she is a symbol, a sacrament, of what deep joy is.  Joy is not a stranger to suffering, in fact, it seems to flourish in suffering, but only suffering born in love and that for us Christians is possible because of our union with Jesus Christ who lives in us by the power of His Spirit.  Joy is possible and available and real in our own sufferings and urges us as we aware of the sufferings of the world around us to do what we can to eliminate them.

        Finally, what we must do to ‘access’ this joy in the Spirit is to be with the Spirit in prayer.  We must take the time to immerse ourselves in prayer to have joy and to sustain it.  We must soak ourselves in prayer, be with, stay with the Spirit and ask for this gift, especially when times are stressful and we are bearing great suffering.  There will always be some resistance to prayer, especially at times of sorrow and stress, there is a temptation to abandon prayer and to think that it is hopeless and futile.  God as abandoned us.  The truth is the opposite.  At these times all the more must we take the time, make the time for prayer.   The Spirit of Jesus will not disappoint you, but will tell you only to ‘come back tomorrow for more.’

        Yes, these are stressful and sad times, joyless times, in many ways.  Aside from the disruptions of nature and the disruptions that we with human nature have caused, there is always a need for joy and today there is a real need for joy, something that many people don’t even know they need or for whom it is so foreign they don’t know it is a gift waiting for them.  Joy is offered to all of us today through God’s Word in St. Paul and Isaiah.  It certainly is always from the Spirit of the living Christ and it is this Spirit that inspired Paul and Isaiah to share their experience with us.

        Remember to pray to the Spirit, stay with the Spirit and ask for the gift of joy.  It will be given to you, you will feel it, though it is much deeper than a passing emotion, and you will know in your heart that you have joy and other people will know that your joy and long for it for themselves.  J-O-Y, Jesus, Others, Yourself, a way to think of ‘joy,’ Jesus is first and he gives you the joy of His Spirit and your joy will radiate to others as you put them before yourself, because selfishness diminishes joy.  Then we sing with the carolers we will really know the message of ‘Joy to the world.’


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