Sunday, December 13, 2020

Joy and ‘Circumstances’

(Third Sunday of Advent (B): This homily was given on December 13, 2020 at St. Pius X Church, Westerly, R.I., by Fr. Raymond Suriani.  Read Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; Luke 1:46-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28.)

[For the audio version of this homily, click here: Third Sunday of Advent 2020]

Most people would probably say that the opposite of joy is sorrow.

But I would say that the opposite of joy—at this time of the year, at least—is not sorrow; rather it’s “circumstances.”

I say that because our sorrow at this time of year, during these 4 weeks of Advent, is usually rooted in circumstances—negative circumstances—challenging circumstances—discouraging and depressing circumstances—either in our own families and personal lives, or somewhere out there in the world.

I’m sure we all can remember bad things that have happened in years past just before Christmas.  When I was a student at Providence College, for example, they had a terrible dorm fire in Aquinas Hall one night in mid-December, which killed ten young women.  I think of that tragic event every year at this time.  It’s one of the negative circumstances I have to deal with annually during Advent.  Getting diagnosed with Parkinson’s Disease two days before Christmas in 2010 is another one I have on my list.

We all have our lists, don’t we?  At or near the top of almost everyone’s list this year are the restrictions and inconveniences and aggravations that COVID-19 has brought into our daily lives.  But it even goes beyond that.  Perhaps some of you lost a loved one this December, or in a December of the past; maybe you lost your job this month—or maybe you lost it this month a year ago and have been unemployed ever since.  Or perhaps it’s just the moral decline and growing secularization of our society that’s getting you discouraged—or the latest goings-on in the world of politics.

That’ll get you depressed really quickly! 

And then we come to Mass on this Third Sunday of Advent and the Church tells us to “Rejoice!”  In our first reading Isaiah says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul!”  In the responsorial psalm we say (or sing), “My soul rejoices in my God.”  And then St. Paul tells us in this text from 1 Thessalonians 5 to “Rejoice ALWAYS”—not just sometimes, not just when things are going well, not just in good circumstances on sunny days in July—but ALWAYS!

Today is Gaudete Sunday.  It’s the Sunday when we light the pink candle on the Advent wreath, signifying that Advent is more than half over and that Christmas is fast approaching.  Gaudete in Latin literally means, “Rejoice!”  It’s an imperative; it’s a command—from Jesus, through his Church.

But it’s a tough command for many of us to obey as much as we might like to, because of those negative circumstances I mentioned earlier.  Now to some extent, these realities are always present in our lives and in our world; however they do seem to have more of a negative impact on us at this time of year.  I think that’s because (in a normal, non-pandemic year) with all the festivity and celebration that goes on around us, it can seem like everyone else is perfectly happy and having a great time.

But that’s an illusion.  As I indicated a few moments ago, everyone has a list of circumstances—circumstances that threaten to undermine their joy.  Even if they don’t seem to have a list, trust me, they do!

So here’s the situation we find ourselves in during this holy season (and to some extent throughout the year): Either our negative circumstances will overcome our joy, or joy will overcome our negative circumstances.

It’s either one or the other.

If circumstances win out in us, we will be miserable; if joy wins, then we’ll be able to rejoice in the way that our Scriptures today tell us to.  We’ll be able to do that in spite of all our problems.

In a homily he gave several years ago, Fr. Roger Landry, who’s a priest from the Diocese of Fall River, made a list of 4 things that can rob us of our joy (4 things, in other words, that can cause negative circumstances to win the victory in us).  See if you can identify with any of these:

The first is self-pity: “Oh woe is me—I have so many problems; I have so many more problems than other people have.  I have more cooking to do than anyone else.  I have more shopping to do than anyone else.  I have more aches and pains than anyone else.  I have to go and listen to Fr. Ray every week at church.  Poor, poor me!”

You know the kind of litany I’m talking about.   

The second is worry.  Worry and joy cannot co-exist, just like self-pity and joy cannot co-exist.  In his homily, Fr. Landry mentioned Pope John XXIII, who, as you might imagine, had an awful lot to worry about as the leader of the Church at the beginning of Vatican II.  But he conquered his worry through prayer—by consciously and consistently putting his own life and the life of the Church into God’s hands.  Fr. Landry wrote, “Pope John XXIII, who had responsibility for the whole Church, used to go in to visit the Lord in his private chapel each night and give the problems back to [God], saying, ’It’s your Church, Lord, I’m going to bed.’”

Sometimes the simplest prayers are the best!

The third thing that can undermine joy happens, Fr. Landry says, “When we place our happiness in something other than God, on acclaim, advancement, promotion, recognition, fame, prestige, power, money, anything.”  And this is exactly what the world encourages us to do at this time of year, is it not?  No wonder so many people are miserable!  The cultural message we get every December is, “Buy this, and you’ll be happy”; “Drink this, eat this, get this game, have this at your party and you’ll have Christmas joy in your heart.”

It’s a lie, but it’s a lie that many people believe—or at least they act like they believe it.

Which brings us to the 4th reality that can ruin joy: complaining.  Chronic complainers are fixated on the negative, and being fixated on the negative makes rejoicing almost impossible.  As Fr. Landry put it, “We lose our joy by complaining.”  He then added, “Some of us would have complained about the menu at the Last Supper.”

I’m sure that’s not true of anyone here in our parish, but apparently it was true of some people in his.

The final point that needs to be made in all this concerns the alternative.  Yes, self-pity, worry, focusing on things other than God and complaining all rob us of joy—that’s true.  But what’s the alternative?  What is it that will deepen our joy in December and in every other month of the year?  What will give us the ability to rejoice always, as St. Paul tells us to in today’s second reading?

The answer is simple, but very hard to put into practice: We need to focus on what we know, by faith, to be true.  In other words, we need to reflect and meditate on what we believe about God and about life—and about ourselves!  This, not surprisingly, is where Isaiah the prophet found his joy.  Notice what he says here.  He says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord (not in things—not in other people—not in the good circumstances of life—IN THE LORD!), in my God is the joy of my soul!”  The psalm refrain (which is a direct quote from Mary in her Magnificat) has the same message: “My soul rejoices in my God.”

Mary and Isaiah understood this principle.

So the bottom line is this: God created you in his image and likeness.  He loves you, perfectly, completely and unconditionally.  He sent his Son into this world 2,000 years ago to save you from your sins and to give you a kingdom that will last forever.  He will never abandon you, and will always provide for your needs.

Those are some of the foundational truths of our Catholic faith.  They were true yesterday; they’re true today; they will always be true. 

That means they will be true in the best circumstances of our lives and in the absolute worst of circumstances of our lives!  So we can always rejoice in them, because they are unchanging!  They’re timeless!  My health may change, my family may change, my friends may change, my job situation may change, I may test positive for the coronavirus tomorrow—but the truth of who God is and what he has done for me will never, ever change. 

So that’s where my focus and yours needs to be, in December—and always.