Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus. (1 Thess 5:16) It is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Guadette Sunday. Rejoice always, I say again, rejoice, for the Lord is near. With all apologies to Pharrell Williams and his Grammy award song, “Happy,” we not told to be happy, but are to “rejoice,” to be joyful. There’s a difference.
I like words, their origin (etymology if you prefer) and the ways in words affect people – and people affect words. Such as the word “peruse” which people understand to mean “glance over, skim,” etc. Yet originally the word means to read completely and in exacting detail. Recently Merriam-Webster’s (M-W) “Word of the Day” revealed another interesting word whose meaning has done an about face: egregious. Today it means to be conspicuous or flagrant – and almost always in a negative sense. Yet the origin of the word from the Latin ex-“out of” and greg– “flock” to give us egregius “illustrious” or in a more modern sense, “outstanding.” Somewhere in the late 16th century the word was increasingly used in an ironic sense, until that usage became it every day meaning.
With less linguistic foundation, I wonder about the word “happy” and “joy.” I think we have a tendency to “smush” synonyms together so that they lose their distinctive and nuanced meanings. For example, it seems to me that we refer to the “joy of salvation.” I can’t recall having ever heard the “happiness of salvation.” M-W defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment” or “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” Hmmm…. Not exactly the expression I would use in reflecting upon salvation, but then again, maybe that’s just me. “Joy” is defined as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” Not too theological but at least it seems to have a bit more “uumph” in it – especially considering God’s desire is that all be saved (1 Tim 2:4) and St. Augustine holds that our deepest desire is to rest in God.
Even if on weak linguistic grounds, I think there is something to this connection of desire and joy. It points to a deeper, richer, more substantive experience than “happy.” In none of our readings today are we hold to be happy. We are told to rejoice. The prophet Isaiah is writing to the people of Israel going home to Jerusalem after their 40 years of exile in Babylon. Isaiah compares it to the experience of a wedding day: “like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem, like a bride bedecked with her jewels.” One can be happy the way a date turned out, but I hope there is something more on the wedding day – a deep abiding joy. One that sustains the couple when later in the marriage the couple needs “glad tidings” and broken hearts need to be healed.
I think that Mary lived the very thing that St. Paul is trying to tell the Thessalonians: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.” In all circumstances – we are told to rejoice… and there’s the rub. How are we to be joyful in all circumstances? I think that this is where we confuse happiness and joy.
Today out psalm hymn is not actually a psalm, but rather it is taken from the Gospel according to Luke. It is Mary’s prayer of joy that today we call the Magnificat. “My soul rejoices in my God …My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked upon his lowly servant. From this day all generations will call me blessed” Mary’s soul rejoices; she experiences a divine joy that penetrates to her very being not only when she arrives to visit her cousin Elizabeth, but when she returns home, on the trip to Bethlehem, during the birth of Jesus, at the presentation in the Temple, while escaping to Egypt from Herod’s murderous rage, and while in exile from hearth and home. In the midst of a life seemingly going off the rails, while she might not be happy, she knows joy even as she waits. She is busy about many things, yet Mary knew the power of waiting, the power of prayer, as she ponders these things in her heart – and she was able to give her full attention to the Lord.
If “joy” is defined as “the emotion evoked by the prospect of possessing what one desires, then a start to answering the question “how are we to be joyful in all circumstances?” is to be clear about what one desires. Isaiah desired the people Israel to return home – even if the way home was rugged and the fact that Jerusalem still lay in ruins. Isaiah says to be joyful: look at the promises fulfilled. Liberty was proclaimed to we captives, and now we know the joy of a prisoner’s release. God is faithful – and consider what else God has promised: “As the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations.” Even as we rebuild our lives, pray in thanksgiving for what has been fulfilled as well as for what will be fulfilled even if not in your lifetime. Do that and when that becomes your desire, you will know a deep abiding joy. Mary understood the promised Messiah was being fulfilled in her choice to let God’s will be done unto her. Her life forward was not always happy; but it was joyful.
That was my experience working with Rwandan refugees in Kenya in the weeks and months following the genocide in their homeland. Their life was anything but happy, their future was uncertain, and yet they found joy. They knew that God keeps promises and so they connected their prayer to the deepest of their desires: to return home, to know reconciliation, to again be one people united in the joy of home.
Sometimes happiness it on the road to joy; sometimes not. Sometimes we have to make choices that will not leave us or others “content.” It may well leave us bereft, anxious, or second-guessing ourselves.That is the experience of my family this week when we sadly, but inevitably, placed our mom in a managed memory care home. We hope she will find happiness and contentment in her new (and very nice) surroundings. Hard to know if this is a pathway to her joy. We the children are not so happy; its hard to move your mom from her home of 28 years, but our deepest desire is that she be safe, content, and know love in the days that are given to her. We praying without ceasing for her joy and pray in thanksgiving for all she has done – for the promises that she kept for us.
But sometimes…, sometimes, the road to happiness might just be the path to joy. So…. be egregious – be apart from the flock – be outstanding in prayer. Peruse all that is unfolding in your life – and be thankful that God’s plan is unfolding and wait in Hope for what is promised.
Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. Amen.
photo below: James Martin SJ Facebook page
from his book: Between Heaven and Mirth: Why Joy, Humor, and Laughter Are at the Heart of the Spiritual Life