Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
When a person receives good news, they usually show it by facial and bodily expressions. They can’t wait to tell someone about their good fortune. A person wins the lottery and wants to tell others. A young couple discovers that they are going to have their first baby. It’s difficult to keep the news to themselves. Smiles break across the face. Shouts of excitement escape the lips!
Yet, when we’re in church for Mass and hear “the Gospel (Good News in Greek) of the Lord” there’s little of the signs of excitement usually associated with the reception of good news. Generally, the people in the congregation just mumble “Praise to you Lord Jesus Christ,” sit down and with faces bordering on boredom almost challenge the homilist to “get on with it priest, let’s get the homily over with so we can get on to more exciting things back home.”
The recurring image, the word repeated many times in the readings of the Third Sunday of Advent is REJOICE! Be glad, show excitement, even dance for joy is the directive the Word of God gives us.
Joy is part of faith in Jesus Christ. But sometimes you’d have a hard time telling that by the solemn faces and “reverent” liturgies we Catholics supposedly “celebrate” Sunday morning with in our Eucharistic gathering. But, Listen to what is prayed in the opening prayer of the Mass of the Third Sunday of Advent. “Enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.” (Roman Missal Third Edition, English translation) Liturgy should be “solemn,” true. It should also reveal our joy!
Joy is part of Christian faith because we’ve been let in on good news. Evil does not triumph. Death is not the end of relationships with those we love. There’s more to life than violence, sickness and human misery. Christ who took on our human nature has redeemed that nature and made it possible for humans to live like God.
And, if you pay attention to the last sentence of the first reading of the day, God “rejoices in his people.” He’s happy we’re around. God delights in the humans he’s called into being like a parent can’t help but smile at their children when they do something cute or sleeping in their bed.
Joy is essential to being a Christian. Humor can be a part of that joy, of the Christian life, too. It can be a way we delight in the truth. It reminds us that while faith and liturgy are serious business, we’re delighted that God is among us, saving us from that which is evil through Jesus Christ.
One of the reasons it’s important for people of faith to be seen with a sense of humor and who express joy is so that we can attract others to faith in Jesus Christ. In my current parish, pastoral council members and other members of the parish often say we’ve got to invite back, get re-involved, the members who have left our church or become non-active. Parishioners say they want to welcome new members to our church and parish who don’t belong to another church. Well, would you want to join a group of people who are always serious, whose worship is always solemn, where no one smiles or expresses delight that you are in the pew with them? A joyful disposition attracts people to have a relationship with Jesus! Even Jesus wasn’t above making a joke or pointing out the absurdity of a situation.
I’ve been reading a book by a Jesuit priest, the Rev. James Martin, S.J. that explores the relationship of joy and humor to faith in Jesus Christ. In his book he gives many examples of how humor and joy were part of the spiritual life of the saints.
The author tells a couple of stories about Blessed Pope John XXIII. Once, before he was the Pope, he was at a diplomatic dinner in France. A woman is there whose dress is very low-cut revealing much of her breasts. A government official mentions to the future pope how scandalous her attire is and how everyone is looking at her! The future John XXIII replies, “No, everyone is not looking at her, but at me to see if I’m looking at her!” Another time, after becoming pope, John XXIII is asked during an official visit by an important dignitary, “Holy Father, how many people work at the Vatican?” Blessed John replied, “About half of them.” Such humor and what must have been a sense of joy that infused the Holy Father’s spiritual life made him a very attractive figure. People loved “Good Pope John” and felt closer to Christ who he was the vicar of to the world.
If we Catholics want to attract people to our message we need a bit of the spirituality of saints like Blessed John XXIII. Humor attracts. Poking fun at ourselves can speak of humility and a realization that the one we serve is a savior that’s good to know and spend time (and eternity) with. The Christ came to bring joy, not fear.
I am not speaking of a type of frivolity or silliness that is off-putting. I’m not suggesting that we never be serious and act immature. The Gospel is much too important to present ourselves in such a way that we are written off as to not be taken seriously. Yet, joy helps gets the point across, sometimes.
There are serious things in this world that must be addressed with a serious, sincere message. We are all aware of the suffering in this world that brings sadness. Evil exists and shows its might, trying to suck the joy out of life in Christ. We need only look at the events in Newtown, Connecticut this past Friday. It seems that evil has gotten the upper hand. There is so much sadness in the effects of one person’s actions. We grieve with those whose lives have been torn apart so violently.
Yet, we can face such evil, unafraid and undefeated because our lives, our faith, are grounded in Good News, joyful news that we are not afraid to let show in our expressions of faith that at times include humor and laughter and smiling faces that invite others to share the joy in our heart knowing Christ. He came among us in the flesh in order to defeat evil on the cross. He comes among us in this liturgy to lighten our fears about death and help us rejoice in God’s love. He will come again to finish the work begun in his incarnation when he will make right all that is wrong with human existence by joining it to his divine nature.
Our vocation is to witness to others, even with lightheartedness the joy that underpins our ability to not be afraid of evil. There was a deacon of the early church, St. Lawrence, who was put to death for his belief in Christ by being put on a spit over a fire to be burnt alive. At one point in his execution he taunted his executioners by saying, “Turn me over, I’m done on this side!” Such playful joy even in the midst of dying mocks death and proclaims, as another saint said, “I do not fear death, I believe in God!”
As it is proclaimed in the Communion Antiphon for the Mass of the Third Sunday of Advent;
Say to the faint of heart: be strong and do not fear. behold, our god will come, and he will save us.
A joyful attitude will take us a long way to getting the message out to those who are “faint of heart.”