Rejoice always, joyful missionary disciple! But how?

A depiction of St. John the Baptist baptizing Jesus on the Jordan River is seen in a stained-glass window in late March at St. Paul Church in Wilmington, Del. (CNS photo/Octavio Duran)

The third Sunday of Advent is also known as Gaudete Sunday, coming from the Latin word gaudere, “to rejoice.” In Philippians 4:4, St. Paul tells us to “rejoice always.” And many readers, even among those with strong faith in Christ, will acknowledge that Paul seems to be setting the bar awfully high. It would be natural to react by saying, “Sounds good, St. Paul, but how?” I think it is safe to say that all of us want to be joyful, but there are a lot of things that can get us downhearted.

“Those whom the LORD has ransomed will return
and enter Zion singing,
crowned with everlasting joy;
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.”
—Isaiah 35:10

When we look at the daily news, we see countless stories of tragedy and misery, of bad things happening to people and of people doing bad things. It is also true that when we look at our own lives, it is easy to focus on our troubles: sickness, problems at work, problems at home, financial worries, and so on. And even when we look within ourselves, we often find trouble: stress and anxiety, weakness, disappointment, and the same old temptations to the same old sins. We can feel like we’re filled more with darkness than with light, and we can begin to wonder whether it will ever get better. To borrow the words of this Sunday’s first reading, are sorrow and mourning really going to flee? If so, when?

So, before this article gets too depressing, what is the answer to this problem? How can St. Paul be serious about rejoicing always, when we find so much pain and trouble as we look at the world, at our lives, and even within ourselves?

Maybe the problem lies in what we spend so much time looking at — the world and ourselves — and the solution definitely lies in turning our attention to the only One Who was ever capable of giving us joy in the first place. In Isaiah 61:10 we hear the prophet say, “I will rejoice heartily in the Lord, my being exults in my God.” If we want what only God can give, it is a waste of time to look everywhere except toward God in order to get it. We need to look to God! We need to ask God. We need to beg God for the gift of His joy.

St. John the Baptist is a great model for us here. John lived a hard, hard life. He lived in the desert, he ate locusts and wild honey — not a recipe you’ll see on the Food Network — and he wore clothing made of camels’ hair. Have you ever hugged a camel? That is what John the Baptist would have felt like all day long. John also preached a baptism of repentance. In other words, he was not one of these pump-you-up motivational speakers, telling everybody how wonderful they were and that they could do anything they set their minds to. What he told them is that they need to turn away from their sins so that they could get right with God!

It is hard to picture a bright, cheery look on John the Baptist’s face. But you can be sure he was a man of tremendous joy, and that he was able to help lots of other people to experience tremendous joy. Remember that in John 3:29, John the Baptist says, “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom; the best man, who stands and listens for him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. So this joy of mine has been made complete.”

John the Baptist knows that he is the “best man” and that Jesus is the Bridegroom, and that John had the privilege to be present as the marriage of Jesus and His Bride, the Church, was beginning to unfold. You could say that John knew his place: on the one hand, he played an incredibly important role in the history of our salvation; on the other hand, he knew that he was not God. The very next line from John’s Gospel clinches it, when John the Baptist says, “He must increase; I must decrease” (Jn 3:30).

John’s joy came from the fact that he had an absolute, laser-like focus on Jesus Christ. He knew who he was, and who he was not. We see that clearly in the Gospels. John also knew that he was created for a specific, God-given mission. In John 1:7, we read, “He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him.” Life was not a pleasure cruise for John the Baptist; it was a business trip! He came to point out Jesus to people when He came, so that they might also believe in Jesus and have life in Him.

Finally, John also looked evil square in the face and rejected it, even though standing up for the truth would cost him his life at the hands of Herod.

All of this stands in pretty sharp contrast to the message of the world, which tells you to do what makes you “happy,” as the world defines happiness. The world tells you to do things your own way, to follow your heart — as if your heart was an absolutely dependable compass for good living — and that you are more or less perfect just the way you are.

Yes, God has made us “very good,” and in baptism we have become His beloved children, but sin is also a reality in each of our lives. We live in a tension between goodness and sin, and we need to pursue holiness, not just presume it. When we presume our own holiness, we live a lie, and living a lie is always a path to misery.

Yes, God has made us “very good,” and in baptism we have become His beloved children, but sin is also a reality in each of our lives. We live in a tension between goodness and sin, and we need to pursue holiness, not just presume it. When we presume our own holiness, we live a lie, and living a lie is always a path to misery.

When we live in the truth, we might not always have warm or exciting feelings, but we do have something better — true joy. We have joy that is deep, abiding, peaceful and fulfilling. I said above that if we want joy we need to turn to the Lord and ask Him for it. Joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit dwelling within us, and Advent is a great time to ask God for this great gift, and show Him we really want it:

• By rejecting our sins, and especially by asking God to forgive them in the sacrament of reconciliation;

• By centering our lives on Christ through the sacraments, prayer, and works of Christian love;

• By “going out into the desert,” separating ourselves from the secular cacophony of noise and distraction for times of prayer and reflection on the coming of Jesus at Christmas and at the end of time;

• By thanking God for all of His blessings. It would be a great practice to thank God for at least five blessings every night before going to bed. Sometimes, we get caught up in thinking all the news in the world and in our lives is bad news, but that is not really true. God has blessed us and is blessing us now!

• And finally, by embracing the mission God has given us, no matter what the cost.

It has been said that the letters that spell “JOY” give us the priorities that make us joyful: Jesus, Others and then Yourself. At every celebration of the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass, we have the chance to turn to Jesus once again, despite all of our troubles, to offer Him to the Father and to receive Him into ourselves, so that He can increase and we will decrease. It is a chance to be empowered by Jesus to go and love others the way He has loved us, even dying on the Cross for us. It is a chance to ask Him for the gift of Christmas joy, and to pledge that we will not hoard this gift for ourselves, but will share it generously with all we meet.

Fr. Charles Fox is a priest of the Archdiocese of Detroit currently assigned to the theology faculty of Sacred Heart Major Seminary. He is also a weekend associate pastor at St. Therese of Lisieux Parish in Shelby Township and chaplain and a board member of St. Paul Evangelization Institute, headquartered in Warren.