Last weekend the National Catholic Youth Ministry Conference was held in Tampa. There were more than 2,500 Catholic visitors to our fair city. They were quite happy to be here, energized by the conference and no doubt happy to return home to share the Good News with their parishes. As the major, early season snow storm swept across the southern states, many were quite happy that the airplane finally got off the ground. Not all travelers were so lucky. There were lots of delays and cancellations. I hope they found happiness in a phone call, a familiar voice, or maybe a moment of quiet after the conference.
Just in the past two weeks we had two of our parishioners return from deployment in Iraq and Afghanistan. I can tell you from experience that there is a wave of happiness at wheels up on the last leg of the flight homeward. A wave of happiness when the flight attendant announces, “We are making our approach into Tampa International…” When you finally get off the plane, pass through security, and at last see your spouse, your kids, your parents or grandparents, your fiancé, or whomever you have longed to see…. that is not happy. That is Joy. You hear it in the tone and energy of the voices, the embraces, and the hugs. And even when the reunion is right in the middle of everyone else’s way, when the reunion is clogging up the entire flow of foot traffic trying to get somewhere, you can’t help but notice even the most curmudgeon-y of travelers, however reluctantly, is giving evidence of a smile. Joy is embedded in the warp and woof, in the very fabric of relationships.
That is why we celebrate Gaudete Sunday. The name comes from wording in Philippians 4:4 – Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! It a Sunday whose very name asks us, “What gives you joy? What is the source of joy in your life?” It is a different question than, “What makes you happy?” – at least in the Christian context. In review of the stories of Scripture, it seems that people are “happy” – as in content, satisfied – with situations, possessions, their own accomplishments, or their general position in life. The rich land owner is quite happy with his abundant harvest. But you would not read the parable and conclude he is rejoicing. Being joyful is a different category of stories. In Scripture, there is a lot that points to joyfulness and is best expressed in one’s relationships with others.
Where is the Joy in the Gospel reading today? It is not a gospel that just “screams” joy – kinda’ makes you wonder why it is chosen for Gaudete Sunday. The seemingly dogmatic, unbending, unrelenting John the Baptist – the one who calls out the Jerusalem religious leadership as a brood of vipers – the one who was certain that judgment was just over the horizon and we all needed to get right with God – is now telling people to change their lives. The kind of change that recognizes “I am not on the right track, there are things in my life I need to fix, and get right with God, my loved ones, and others.” Why should we be happy about that?
Where is the joy in staring at the flight board at TPA and seeing “Cancelled” next to your flight home? In the moment when you realize that your to-do list is about “to-do” you in? When you are so aware of the dread in your gut about what next year might bring? Where is the joy in the recognition of the need for repentance? Where is the joy in the parish emergency phone that calls me out for “Last Rites” to the dying? Those are the moments we need to remember: Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!
The French author and poet Victor Hugo wrote that “The supreme joy of life is the conviction that we are loved.” We are loved so much that God sent His only Son that we might have life and live to the fullest – and there are things in our lives that are barriers to that joy. We are loved so much that we have people in our lives who will point out our failings and faults because they want us to have life and live to the fullest. These things are the love of God and neighbor in action. And where is the part that is love of self? It is in the questions we ask ourselves ever mindful that the road to joy begins with an acceptance of our lives as it is in this moment with all it uncontrollability, mystery, imperfections, and doubts. Including the moment when we know we are loved as we wait for the Messiah – the one whom prophets and kings longed to see – and did not – the One coming to us. The One coming in today’s Eucharist.
Let your soul leap for joy in the great gift that is the Eucharist; in the One who calls you to come to the altar amidst your sorrow, fear, and doubts. In the midst of your questions, discomfort and anxiety. “Lord I am not worthy, but only say the word” – and the Word has been said. Come and Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice! The Lord is near.