On Having Christian Joy

3rd Sunday in Ordinary Time

A subtle theme threads throughout this Sunday’s readings: the theme of joy. When the Jews return to Jerusalem from the Babylonian Exile their leaders read the Old Covenant to them. And the crowd weeps as the scrolls are read because they realize they have not been keeping God’s laws. But Nehemiah the governor, Ezra the priest, and the many Levites say: “Do not be sad and do not weep—for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength!” They tell the assembly to celebrate, to feast on rich food and sweet drinks. God’s covenant is cause to be joyful, for the Lord is offering not only his teaching but also his friendship. As a passage we hear today from Psalm 19 says: “The precepts of the Lord are right, rejoicing the heart.” God’s words are true and reliable and proof that he cares about us. And that’s always reason for us to rejoice.

In today’s Gospel, Jesus comes to his hometown synagogue and is handed a scroll of Isaiah the prophet. The words Jesus reads to the people of Nazareth are “fulfilled in their hearing” because they describe the Christ and his mission: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.” Jesus Christ tells us an important part of his mission is to bring us joy. He does this together with the Holy Spirit. Ezra, Nehemiah, and the Levites instructed the Jewish people to feast, and that was a good thing to do, but Christian joy goes beyond passing pleasure. Like St. Paul teaches the Christians in Rome: “the Kingdom of God (is more than mere) eating and drinking, but righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit.

What is Christian joy and how can it be ours? First, realize that joy is a delight which is different from happiness. Happiness depends upon what happens: good things please us and bad things pain us, but joy endures despite changing happenstance. Unlike happiness – which is fickle – joy is grounded in unchanging things providing lasting hope. If our treasure is confined to this earth, thieves can steal it, moths can eat it, and decay can destroy it, plunging our hearts into despairing darkness. But if our great treasure is in heaven, a treasure that cannot be destroyed or stolen (namely, our Lord, his promises and rewards) then our hearts can persevere in hopeful light. “For where your treasure is, your heart will be there also.

Now I am not saying clinical depression is impossible for a Christian. We would not tell a diabetic to “just perk up and make more insulin.” Likewise, clinical depression is not merely a matter of the will, and someone burdened by it should pursue medical help. As the Book of Sirach teaches, “from God the doctor has wisdom.” Seeking out a doctor’s help is an ordinary means by which God heals. If visiting a doctor meant a Christian lacked faith in God’s healing power, then visiting your grocer would mean a lack of faith in God’s power to give daily bread. We should not refuse the good gifts God makes so easily available to us.

Possessing joy does not mean that Christians will never suffer. St. Paul teaches in today’s second reading that we Christians are one Body of Christ in one Holy Spirit, and “if one part suffers, all the parts suffer with it, (and) if one part is honored, all the parts share its joy.” Joy can be present at the same time as suffering. As St. Paul later wrote to the Corinthians, “I am overflowing with joy in all our affliction.” Jesus – even while suffering on his Cross – had joy, and we can also possess such joy.

How can this joy be ours? First recognize that joy comes from God, then pray asking for this gift, and then be open to living joyfully. God is the cause and reason for our Joy. St. Paul mentions to the Galatians that joy is a fruit of the Holy Spirit. And Jesus Christ, his promises and rewards, are our joyful treasure that cannot be taken away. Jesus says at the Last Supper: “Ask (in my name) and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” So be sure to pray and ask for joy. And be open to receiving this holy gift.

Who would refuse the gift of joy? Maybe someone who uses discontent as a comfortable cop-out. If I have no wealth, no one can ask me to share. If my cup is empty, no one can expect me to pour myself out. The joyful cup, however, will richly runneth over. Or perhaps the joy-resistant person has been wounded by past disappointments and hesitates to hope again. But consider: if you can’t trust God, who can you trust? Besides, without God you have nothing, so what do you have to lose from accepting joy?

Jesus says: “I have told you this so that my joy may be in you and your joy may be complete.” Today, may this scripture passage be fulfilled in your hearing.

One Response to “On Having Christian Joy”

  1. zolljl Says:

    Interesting… I ‘am’ a diabetic, my family ‘does’ have a depression streak running through it (I have not been diagnosed) And I have written and just recently reviewed my exegesis on 2Cor1 on Suffering. Let’s just call it the Spirit moving through us this weekend…..

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