Joy in the Lord - Third Sunday of Advent (C) 2018

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Each year the theme of Joy is captured in the liturgy of the third Sunday of Advent.

- The entrance antiphon announces: “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” 
- The opening prayer asks, “May we experience the joy of salvation.”
- The prophet Zephaniah, in the first reading, expressing the hope for a Messiah, declares, “Shout for joy, Daughter of Zion.”
- The Response to the Responsorial Psalm says, “Cry out with joy and gladness.”
- And St Paul in his Letter to the Philippians states, “I want you to be happy.”

The liturgical instructions for this Sunday each year encourages the wearing of rose-coloured vestments. And the third candle in the Advent Wreathe is rose-coloured.

Why is there this theme of joy before Christmas? Clearly it anticipates what is to come. The source of this joy is, in the words of Zephaniah, “The Lord your God is in your midst.”

The theme of joy in the Christian life is a very appropriate theme for reflection. We can be burdened by so many things both within our own life and more broadly in our society or culture. Indeed, at times, we can struggle to find reasons for joy. Yet joy is what we long for. We don’t want to go through life miserable or depressed. We want to have a happy disposition. A happy person is an attractive person.

We are reminded today of the source of Christian joy. We can find joy and happiness in a natural way. When we celebrate, or have good things happen to us, or we just feel good, these can give us a taste of joy at the natural level.
For the Christian the true and enduring experience of joy is found in our relationship with God. St Paul said that he wanted the Christians in Philippi to be “happy in the Lord”. The responsorial psalm declared that “the Lord is my strength, my song”.

Every person naturally longs for happiness. We all hope for a happy life. We wish one another happiness on key occasions: Happy Birthday, Happy Anniversary. The pursuit of happiness is a powerful driver for many people’s choices in life. We make life decisions in the hope that we will be happy, for example, we choose a job that we like to do, we live in a location that we are attracted to.

Spurred on by the effectiveness of advertising we so often buy things on the basis that they will make us happy. We long for relationships that will bring us happiness – the companionship of marriage, friendships, and so on. Our general aspiration for life is that we will find happiness. We are aware of those things that could limit or diminish our happiness – poor health, suffering, depression. The pursuit of happiness is a fundamental human quest and it affects us daily in our thoughts, words and deeds.

One great paradox in life is that the determined pursuit of happiness for its own sake can often fail to achieve results we longed for. The human experience of happiness is often momentary and passing.

For example, if a person enters a relationship wanting solely to receive from it, it will doom the relationship in the end. There must be giving as well as taking. We know that, contrary to the constant inducement in the society around us, pursuing sexual gratification as an end in itself or as a path to pleasure does not finally satisfy.

The Lord clearly warns us in the Gospels that the acquiring wealth and success is not a recipe for happiness. A person can lose their soul in the process.

The Christian teaching presents this paradox: It is in giving that we receive, as the Peace Prayer of St Francis states. The teaching of the Lord in the Beatitudes states that being poor is somehow the way we are blessed: “Blessed are the poor in spirit.” The Lord teaches that only in being merciful ourselves can we receive mercy. The ultimate truth is, in the words of the well-known hymn attributed to St Francis of Assisi, “It is in dying, born to eternal life.”

It is the truth of human life and the consistent teaching of the Scriptures that happiness cannot, in the end, be pursued in its own right. Happiness is a fruit, a consequence, of a life focused beyond itself.

And it is also true that at the deepest level of human existence, in the depths of our spirit, true and lasting happiness will be found in our personal union with God. Human life is not complete by itself. As St Augustine says in his oft-quoted words from his Confessions: “You made us for yourself, O God, and we are restless until we rest in thee.”

Final and full happiness will not be found in things, in human relationships, in this world. Final happiness is found in God.

These considerations are appropriate as we approach Christmas and its wondrous mystery that the one born in a stable in Bethlehem is Emmanuel – God with us – and this is cause of great joy. God is with us and we are with God. It highlights our deep inner need for God. Nothing less than God can satisfy the thirst of the human spirit.

Today let us open our hearts, let us recognise the deep longing in our spirit for union with the living God. From the thirst of our soul let us cry out in hope and expectation in the Church in this final period of Advent. And so our prayer is full of expectant joy: “O come, O come, Emmanuel.”

Archbishop Julian Porteous
Sunday, 16 December 2018