Friday, December 12, 2014

Rejoice...Always? A Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent

The Reverend Kyle L. Doustou
Third Sunday of Advent – Year B

December 14, 2014

Joy…a simple three-letter word expressing a movement in the spirit that is so often hard to come by in these dark days. It’s a word that’s found no fewer than 66 times throughout the New Testament, but in our own vocabularies it’s used rather sparingly. So many of us are just trying to get by on a daily basis…we put smiles on our faces and make valiant attempts to be pleasant and even bubbly when the situation calls for it, but there’s a heaviness that weighs on us. Sickness and illness, financial difficulties, marital problems, rebellious or ungrateful children, failed relationships, betrayals, lingering guilt and shame, school or workplace difficulties, broken homes, substance abuse, even death…these and so many other realities and occurrences dampen our spirits and cast us into profound sorrow. About 10% of adults in America suffer from some form of depression…suicide is on the rise…and people are increasingly turning to alcohol and drugs to help dull the pain in their lives. So when St. Paul tells us in our second reading this morning to “Rejoice always,” how can we even begin to take him seriously? The joy that most of us experience is just too often short-lived.
St. Paul’s no fool though…and he wasn’t exactly exempt from sorrow and pain in his life. He no doubt had to live with the daily guilt and the shame for his role in persecuting Christians. He knew what it was like to be thrown in to the wrenches of poverty and to toil for his daily bread. He knew the bitter sting of betrayal. He underwent multiple beatings. He suffered from loneliness and, at times, some pretty severe anxiety. And he wasn’t afraid to share all of this in his many different letters now contained in the New Testament. St. Paul knew what it was to suffer, and to suffer intensely, and still he could bring himself to be joyful and to command us to do the same. Maybe there’s more to joy than meets the eye…and maybe the presence of sorrow in our lives, even intense sorrow, does not necessitate the absence of joy.
St. Thomas Aquinas speaks about joy at length. Joy, he says, is the primary fruit of love. It’s not giddiness and it’s not contentment…it’s not feeling wonderful and it’s not satisfaction. Joy is an elation of the soul that is caused by love. When we are in the presence of something we love, or when the proper good of something we love exists and endures in us, the result is joy. Conversely, sorrow is also caused by love…or rather, by its absence. When we are somehow denied the presence of something we love, or when the proper good of something we love no longer exists or endures in us, the result is sorrow. Test this theory on a small child. Give him a toy and watch him beam with joy. Then take it away and watch him cry in sorrow. The presence of the toy brought the child joy because, at that moment, the child loved the toy…but when you took it away from him, the absence of what he loved caused him sorrow.  

His suffering was great...but His joy was even greater.
It may seem too simplistic, but it’s often the case that so much of our sorrow, and the absence of joy in our lives, is a result of our misplaced love. Sometimes it’s really base…like children, we give too much of our love to “toys;” sometimes it’s not so base, and we give our love to other people and subsequently get hurt when it’s taken away. The reality is, whether they’re good things or whether or they’re bad things, if we put our love only in the things of this earth, it is only a matter time before we are cast into sorrow, because everything in this earth is passing. But if we love the things that are eternal, if we love the things of God, we need not fear ever losing them. For this reason, the Christian can always be joyful…even if he is sorrowful over the loss of the things of this earth, if he truly loves God, if he truly gives God his love and accepts God’s love in return, then true and lasting joy can be his.
St. Paul’s exhortation today, that we rejoice always, is not a pep talk nor is it friendly encouragement…it’s a call to love. He tells us to rejoice always, which is a round-about way of telling us to place our first and primary love in God. Everything else is guaranteed, sooner or later, to fail us. But if we love God above all things…above our checkbooks, our health, our relationships, our jobs, all things…then even in the midst of profound sorrow we will be joyful. This is why Lord tells us in the Matthew’s Gospel, “He who loses his life for my sake shall find it.”

Today, on this Gaudete Sunday, this Sunday of rejoicing as we trudge nearer and nearer to the Christmas Crib, let us rededicate ourselves to the love of God. Whatever is preventing us from loving Him, let us pray for the strength to let go of it. Today let’s ask for the strength to let go of the things of this world and to hold fast to the things of God, indeed to God Himself. Because the more we cling to Him, the more perspective we’ll be given to the passing nature of our earthly loves and the suffering they cause, and then we can learn to be ever more joyful in the great and enduring gift of His eternal love.

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