Sunday, May 13, 2012

Christian Joy: Easter 6B (Mother’s Day)

I avoid telling old jokes. Recycled humour can be tiresome.

Still, sometimes it's tempting to recycle a classic just because it fits so well. And today I couldn't resist.

The newly –ordained Father Mulcahy was giving his first homily on Mother's Day, and he was very anxious about it. The wise old pastor offered him some advice: mix some humour and some suspense, be sure to mention your mother, and you'll have a great sermon.

"How do I do that?" the young priest asked.

"I'll tell you how," said the pastor. "Use this old story and you'll have a guaranteed hit. Begin '"I spent the best years of my life in the arms of another man's wife!"  And when the congregation gasps, you add "She was my mother!"

Sunday morning, a very nervous Father Mulcahy began to preach. He started with, "I spent the best years of my life in the arms of another man's wife."

Right on cue, the congregation gasped. The priest paused dramatically. But just as he did, his mind went blank. So after a few stunned moments he looked up and said, "I just can't remember who she was!"

Even a vintage joke deserves a good laugh this Sunday—because Jesus is offering us joy. And not just any kind of joy—his own joy. He tells the disciples "I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete."

Let's zoom in on these words. St. John places them in the middle of a long farewell speech to the disciples, following the Last Supper. The end is near, and Jesus has a lot to say. He tells the disciples not to let their hearts be troubled, and to have faith in him. He tells them to keep his commandments, and promises them the Holy Spirit. And he presents himself as the true vine, to which the faithful disciple must be attached like a branch.

Those are the things Jesus has said so that his joy may be in us. Through faith, obedience and the gift of the Spirit, we can have joy: not ordinary joy, but something different—something better.

I tend to think of joy as a feeling. Something good happens to me, so I feel joyful. The problem is: something bad happens to me, and the joy is gone. That can't be what Jesus means. Joy that depends on circumstances, joy that vanishes when things go wrong, can't really be what Jesus means; it sure can't be called "complete."

What is Christian joy, then?

The answer is easy to find if we just jump ahead one chapter in John's Gospel, where Jesus again speaks of joy. He makes it easy to distinguish between what we ordinarily call joy and what he means by joy. His joy, Jesus says, is a joy no-one can take from you.

There's the first difference. If I'm walking down the street thinking joyful thoughts on a sunny day, and someone calls me on my cell phone to complain about last Sunday's homily, the joyful feelings vanish before the call is over. But Christian joy does not depend on other people, but on our unity with Christ—on abiding with him in friendship and intimacy.

Jesus also says that our pain and sorrow will turn into joy. That's completely different from human joy; it's a million miles away from pain and sorrow. But the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus are the perfect proof of a joy that comes not from smooth sailing but from the transformation and redemption of suffering.

Christian joy, most certainly, does not depend on good health or good fortune, but on faith that Christ has conquered everything that can truly harm or oppress us. Christians don't find their joy in passing circumstances but in trusting God in all things, at all times. As St. Paul says, "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say 'rejoice'!"

I can almost hear you saying "easier said than done!" Fair enough. I'm the first to admit that living in joy isn't effortless. In fact, it's a project, even a lifetime project. Christian joy comes from a basic attitude by which we are fundamentally attuned to the self-giving of Christ. [See The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, v. "joy."]

In other words, to have the joy of Jesus, we need the heart of Jesus. We need to think and act as he did.
But don't let that scare you off. The Gospel this morning teaches us two ways to do this, and so to acquire the joy he wants us to have

First, giving leads to receiving. Service brings joy. Are you miserable at the moment? Find a way to love.

Some years ago, my friend Father Benedict Groeschel wrote a book called Arise From Darkness: What to Do When Life Doesn't Make Sense. His final chapter is titled "The Remedy that Always Works." Here's what it says to people who are living in pain and sorrow:

…we find it all too appealing to step back into the cave of self-pity and lick our wounds… but it is absolutely unhelpful and flies in the face of both the example and the words of Christ. …The first step in time of distress is to go back to your duties – to care for those who depend on you… The next step is to respond to the special needs of those who are desperate or in grief themselves [147-149].

Simply put: Service is a straight path to Christian joy.

And joy, of course, shapes our service: a "principal aim of the Christian life is to serve God and neighbour joyfully" and "every activity and relationship in service of God and neighbour shares in a joyful quality." [The New Dictionary of Catholic Spirituality, 578]

The second way we have the joy of Jesus is to know the love of the Father as he did. We abide in God's love through prayer and faithful discipleship. In the Christian life, God himself "is the supreme joy and the greatest delight" [ibid.] 

In a word, love brings joy—love of God, and love of neighbour.

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