Reflections to start the week
Monday, December 16, 2013
Joy to the World
A Christmas carol when it’s still Advent? Not to worry. Liturgical know-it-alls and Advent police have informed me that “Joy To The World” is not really a Christmas hymn. In the 1940 hymnal, it was not even listed in the Christmas section. It’s less about Bethlehem and more about the future coming of Christ. Some churches sing the hymn in the dog days of August. It’s been requested at funerals, liturgies which according to our Prayer Book, have to do with joy. So with that in mind, a Monday reflection on joy to the world, well before the Christmas season begins.
The theme is prompted, in part, by the exhortation recently offered by the new pope. Confession: Over the years, due to my sloth or indifference or Protestant ancestry, I’ve never gone out of my way to read Vatican documents. But this one, entitled Evangelii Gaudium, has triggered exceptional commentary. After I saw the politicians and pundits who criticized it, I thought to myself: “If these folks are upset by this, I’m gonna like it.” So I downloaded it and read away. It focuses on the challenges in our world prompted by income inequality, and the fact that money has grown as an idol, that money is meant to be servant, not ruler. The pontiff’s critique of unfettered capitalism drew the critical attention that drew my attention.
But passages that dealt with the call to social justice were only part of what the Pope had to say. The title of the document (which means “The Joy of the Gospel”) framed the discussion in terms of the call for Christians to experience and share joy. The Pope said this: “The life of the Church should always reveal clearly that God takes the initiative, that “he has loved us first” (1 Jn 4:19) and that he alone “gives the growth” (1 Cor 3:7). This conviction enables us to maintain a spirit of joy in the midst of a task so demanding and challenging that it engages our entire life. God asks everything of us, yet at the same time he offers everything to us.”
In another section, the Pope said that “the gospel joy which enlivens the community of disciples is a missionary joy. The seventy-two disciples felt it as they returned from their mission (cf. Lk 10:17). Jesus felt it when he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and praised the Father for revealing himself to the poor and the little ones (cf. Lk 10:21). It was felt by the first converts who marveled to hear the apostles preaching “in the native language of each” (Acts 2:6) on the day of Pentecost. This joy is a sign that the Gospel has been proclaimed and is bearing fruit.
A bit more from the Pope: “I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to, the real joy shown by others who, even amid pressing professional obligations, were able to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith. In their own way, all these instances of joy flow from the infinite love of God, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ. I never tire of repeating those words of Benedict XVI which take us to the very heart of the Gospel: “Being a Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction”.
Going back to my Protestant roots, I’m reminded of the definition of a Puritan: Someone who is unhappy because somebody somewhere is having a good time. The Pope seemed to know about this dynamic in the church, as he wrote: “A tomb psychology develops and slowly transforms Christians into mummies in a museum. Disillusioned with reality, with the Church and with themselves, they experience a constant temptation to cling to a faint melancholy, lacking in hope, which seizes the heart like “the most precious of the devil’s potions”. Called to radiate light and communicate life, in the end they are caught up in things that generate only darkness and inner weariness, and slowly consume all zeal for the apostolate. For all this, I repeat: Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of the joy of evangelization!”
Reading these last comments, I’m challenged to consider the extent to which the Pope has me in mind. It makes me wonder where we find joy, even in adversity. Where does it come from? How I can know more of it? How can I pass it on? I’m thankful that the Pope has reflected on the challenge, and indeed, that he shows us the way. I saw joy last week, in evidence at the memorial for Mandela, a celebration of music and dancing in the pouring rain, an extension of Mandela’s life which even in adversity exuded joy. It’s evident in the ministry of Desmond Tutu who navigates life’s most challenging passages with a contagious exuberance. Yesterday, the Third Sunday of Advent (a.k.a., Gaudete Sunday), takes its cue from Paul’s letter to the Philippians, in which he calls on readers to rejoice in the Lord always (The word gaudete means rejoice). That’s striking because Paul’s letter was written from a prison cell. As he writes from that dank, dark place, every other word in the letter seems to be about joy. C. S. Lewis, whose spiritual autobiography was called Surprised by Joy, said that joy is the serious business of heaven. But it is business we undertake here and now.
As we move from the season of Advent to the season of Christmas, make room for joy in your life. When have you experienced it? What caused it? Give thanks for that. And then ask yourself: How can you share joy with others?
Note: I’ve you managed to read this far, you may note that this week’s entry is a bit longer than most. I try to be more succinct than this. I guess I could blame the Pope. He just wrote a lot of good stuff, and I had a hard time selecting what to share. Believe me. There’s more where this came from. Take some time before Christmas and read Evangelii Gaudium in its entirety.
|He rules the world with truth and grace and makes the nations prove the glories of his righteousness and wonders of his love. I sometimes wonder whether all pleasures are not substitutes for joy.
The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus, it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing.
-Isaiah 35: 1,2
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God which surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
Rev. Jay Sidebotham
RenewalWorks is a ministry of Forward Movement.