As the great feast of Christmas draws near, the Church rejoices, and the liturgy today is full of references to rejoicing – “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Sing joyfully, O Israel!” “Cry out with joy and gladness….” “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” The Good News throughout Advent is that the Lord is coming, and that message brings great joy. In Pope Francis’ reflection this week, he refers to today as “The Sunday of Joy.” Priests wear rose vestments as a sign of rejoicing. We are clearly being invited to enter into the spirit of rejoicing and to ponder it.
Why do we rejoice? Many things give us joy, some very simple, some more profound. Our reason for joy can be as simple as seeing the beauty of a flower in bloom, or the experience of a day of sunshine after several days of rain. It can be the joy of receiving an unexpected kind word or a gift. On a deeper level, there is the rejoicing that comes after we overcome some trial or difficulty, or when a loved one recovers from a serious illness.
What we long for, however, is a source of joy that will not fade away or die. Lasting joy cannot be based on things that do not last. If we have faith, we know that our true source of lasting joy is the Lord. Today’s reading says, “Rejoice in the Lord always” because “the Lord is near.” In fact, the Lord is here with us. He is Emmanuel, which means “God is with us.” We have a real reason for rejoicing always because God is always with us. He does not leave us, or change, or weaken; he does not do anything against us; his love is constant and strong. This gives us a solid reason for rejoicing always.
Love brings joy; the greatest love brings the greatest joy; and the greatest love is God. If we know that joy comes from God who is love, and that our participation in this love gives us joy, we can have joy always, even when we are suffering. It sounds like a contradiction, but it is true: we can experience joy even when we are suffering because when we are suffering, we can still love. We can still give ourselves for the good of others in love. Parents know this joy. At times, we suffer in raising our children, through the many sacrifices we make for them. But it is a sacrifice we freely undertake, with love, for their good, and we rejoice to be able to show our love and guidance in this way.
What is the joy of John the Baptist? Not in focusing on his own importance but in knowing and doing the will of God. His joy is complete because he finds his joy in serving the Lord as the “friend of the Bridegroom” (Jn 3:29). In today’s Gospel, people come to John to ask him what they should do. They seek him out for his wisdom because they recognize him as a man of God. They are even asking themselves whether he might be the Messiah, the Christ. John clarifies that he is not: “One mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.”
John further describes part of the mission of the Messiah: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” The practice of winnowing provides an image for how God will separate the faithful from the unrepentant at the end of the world. A winnowing fan was used to toss the grain into the air, which allowed the wind to scatter the chaff, the waste. The grain was then swept up and gathered to be stored in the barn, while the chaff was burned.
What does this have to do with “rejoicing in the Lord”? There is, to be sure, no joy for those who by their own choices have made themselves “chaff.” Sin cannot bring us lasting joy. It might give us some kind of fleeting relief or distraction, but that sort of “joy” is always short lived. For the “wheat,” however, there is the lasting joy of being gathered into union with God.
The Lord is inviting us to participate in his own joy, joy “in the Lord.” Perhaps our Christmas joy may be muted this year as we still face the effects of the pandemic. But even if we can enjoy our Christmas celebrations and family gatherings, these cannot give us the deepest joy. The deepest joy is to know God, to love him, to do his will, and to invite others to do the same. May all of us share in the greatest joy – the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, our Lord (cf. Rm 8:39).
What are some of the profound experiences in my life that caused me to rejoice in a deeper way? In what ways have I experienced joy in suffering? Why do I seek and desire joy from the passing things and not in the knowledge that God loves me?
Excerpt from The Anawim Way, Volume 18, no. 1. More information about The Anawim Way may be found here.