One of the things I have learned as I have traveled around from one assignment to the other is that people, everywhere, are desperately seeking fulfillment, peace and happiness. Universities, shopping malls, car dealerships, soup kitchens, and all kinds of doctor’s offices are all filled with people looking for fulfillment and happiness. And while none of these things are bad, they often fall short of people’s expectations as a remedy for the void that drives them.
This past Sunday marked the joy we all share knowing that Christmas is near; however, I believe the concept of joy is a mystery to most of us. We wonder if joy is merely a fleeting moment of pleasure and freedom from pain, or if it is something more enduring.
The dictionary says that joy is: Intense and especially ecstatic or exultant happiness, but that doesn’t tell us much. In his book Surprised by Joy, CS Lewis says that joy is “an unsatisfied desire which is itself more desirable than any other satisfaction.”
In other words, joy is connected to our longing for God. It is reminiscent of St. Augustine’s cry that, “our hearts are restless, Lord, until they rest in thee,” or of Psalm 62 which proclaims that, “only in God is my soul at rest.”
As Catholics we believe that our deepest joy is found in our relationship with God mediated by the Church; and yet, so often when I celebrate Mass, I wonder if we get that.
I am sad to say that when most of us think of the source of our joy, Mass does not top the list – not that I necessarily blame them. I have been to many of Masses when my attempt at prayer was disrupted by a monotonous homily, out-of-tune choir or distracting person in the pew behind me.
In fact as a teenager, I spent most of my time in a Southern Baptist Church. Quite frankly, I found it more entertaining. They could clap (in rhythm), sing, preach and they looked good doing it!
But then one day, I read St. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians. The very same St. Paul that we heard on Sunday through his letter to the Philippians, “Rejoice, I say it again, Rejoice always.” And yet in Chapter 11 of Corinthians, Paul writes:
Five times I had the thirty-nine lashes. Three times I have been beaten with sticks; once I was stoned. Three times I have been shipwrecked. I have worked and labored, often without sleep. I have been hungry and thirsty and often starving. I have been in the cold without clothes.
I was perplexed. How could Paul go through all that and tell the Philippians (and us) to “rejoice always”?
What St. Paul understood is that joy is not dependent upon the externals. Joy is unrelated to our environment, status, wealth, health or anything else; rather, joy is a gift of the spirit. Thus joy is connected to our awareness of the gift and ability to use it. Joy is dependent on our intentionality.
What John the Baptist, Mary, Paul and the Baptists I used to go to service with all understood was that our joy comes from our purpose. Joy is the product of knowing what we are about.
Think about how much better Mass would be if you would sing and participate with all the intention the words demand? Now that stores and other places are open on Sunday, I have noticed that people are not dressed up for Mass, they are dressed for what they will do after Mass. Mass, then, unconsciously becomes an “obligation” we get out of the way so we can do other things. No wonder it is not joyful.
The same is true with our time at work and home. How much meaningful would your family time be if you are really present to it, and not distracted by other things? Are you able to turn off the television, pager, cell phone and really be with your family?
In fact, if you wanted to go through every aspect of your life, I think you will find a lack of joy is connected to a lack of intentionality.
In so many ways this is the message of John the Baptist and the prophet Zephaniah – repent, live with joy – be present to God whose grace has already come among you! May we all have the courage to do so.