Joy as a Duty

(Homily for Third Sunday of Advent, Year C)

Bottom line: St. Paul presents joy, constant joy, as not just a good thing, but as a duty. St. John shows the three basic steps to joy.

This Sunday we lit the third candle of our Advent Wreath. You probably noticed that it has a different color: rose, instead of violet or purple. The rose color signifies "rejoicing."

St. Paul tells us to "rejoice in the Lord always." He doesn't say, "rejoice when things go your way." Or "rejoice when you are feeling good." No, he simply says, "rejoice always." Before saying how this is possible, I would like to first address why it is necessary for a Christian to always rejoice.

St. Paul himself gives the reason in the second sentence: "Your kindness should be known to all." Inner joy leads to kindness.* The person who goes around sullen, angry and bitter has a hard time treating others with kindness. On the contrary, the angry person often treats others harshly. St. Paul presents joy, constant joy, as not just a good thing, but as a duty. Rejoice always, he says.

Today's Gospel outlines the steps to joy. When people asked St. John the Baptist what they must do, he gives some surprising advice. You might expect that he would tell people to put on sack cloth and join him in the desert. But he doesn't. He gives very ordinary advice: Share with the person who has less, don't cheat, tell the truth, no false accusations, find satisfaction in what you have.

You could get the same advice from the Buddha, Socrates, Lao-Tse or any good teacher. John is not inventing new moral precepts. He speaks from the universal moral law - a law "written in the human heart." All of us know the moral law because we have something in us called a "conscience." Quoting the Second Vatican Council, the Catechism gives this description of conscience:

"Deep within his conscience man discovers a law which he has not laid upon himself but which he must obey. Its voice, ever calling him to love and to do what is good and to avoid evil, sounds in his heart at the right moment. . . . For man has in his heart a law inscribed by God. . . . His conscience is man's most secret core and his sanctuary. There he is alone with God whose voice echoes in his depths." (1776)

The first step to joy is to obey one's conscience. I'm not talking here about some anemic undestanding of conscience: whatever I happen to feel is right.** I'm talking about conscience in the true sense - the law God has written on our hearts. We usually only need to be reminded, as John does today.

Even non-believers know the connection between conscience and happiness. The Roman philosopher, Seneca, said, "The foundation of true joy is in the conscience."*** A troubled conscience, with all its self-deception and deception of others, destroys peace. Obedience to conscience, to the moral law, brings tranquility - and joy

So, a peaceful conscience is the first and fundamental step to joy. A second step follows. It involves, as St. John shows us, finding one's place in the order of things. God has a specific plan for each person. We were not created randomly or accidently, but for a purpose. Each must discover his place in God's order. As much as people lionized John, as much as they flocked to him, John acknowledged someone much greater than himself. In that sense he was very different from Satan. Lucifer tried to exalt himself, even to a divine level - and he wound up the most miserable creature. John humbled himself, "one mightier than I is coming..." Joy not only involves recognizing those who are greater - and ultimately the One who is greatest. You can express this second step in single word: humility.

The third step is the most difficult for many of us: patience. St. John is the great teacher of patience. His entire ministry was one of patient waiting. He awaited the Messiah. He knew that he couldn't construct a paradise here on earth. Lasting happiness can only come from God. You and I spend so much time trying to create our own happiness. John teaches that joy comes from patient waiting on the Lord.

I'd like to sum up and to suggest that you use this summary as a preparation for confession. We will have our Advent Penance Service this Friday. To prepare yourself, ask how you are doing in relation to joy: Are you striving for joy in the right way: by a good conscience, by humility and by patience? Is your joy made evident in your kindness - not isolated acts, but a constant, deep-rooted practice? Even with your family - when no one else is looking?

With that in mind, here is a summary. This is what I want you to take home: Rejoice always. Joy is a Christian duty. It enables us to treat others with deep kindness. St. John teaches the basic steps to joy: First, obeying one's conscience, that is, strive to keep the moral law. Second, humility: Find your proper place in the order of things - above all, in relation to God. Third, practice patient waiting - joy comes God, not our meager efforts. Three things, then: Good conscience, humility and patience.

"Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice. Your kindness should be known to all."


*Fr. Raniero Cantalamessa points out that the Greek word translated as "kindness" means much more than being a "nice guy." Besides common courtesy (which is not always so common) the word means "the capacity to know when to accede to others y show oneself be welcoming and tolerant," even to those who irritate. Kindness - in the full sense of the word - has diminished today. Fr. Cantalamessa illustrates how the media have coarsened us with all its gratuitous sex and violence. (see Echad Las Redes, Reflexiones sobre los Evangelios, Ciclo C) Anyone who uses email knows how people will type things they would never say in a face-to-face conversation or write out in a letter. If an email has enfuriated me, I try to wait several days before responding. But it is even better to work on the joy that banishes anger.

**"I have my truth, you have your truth." This mindless slogan (which, when push comes to shove, no one really believes) has given people a convenient way to reject Church teaching. By and large, they not seriously studied the teaching they brush aside in the name of "conscience."

C.S. Lewis gave a dramatic example of distorted conscience: "Of all tyrannies, a tyranny sincerely exercised for the good of its victims may be the most oppressive. It would be better to live under robber barons than under omnipotent moral busybodies. The robber baron's cruelty may sometimes sleep, his cupidity may at some point be satiated; but those who torment us for our own good will torment us without end for they do so with the approval of their own conscience."

***Lewis also saw conscience as clue to God's existence. In one of his most famous quotes, he said, "God whispers to us in our pleasures, speaks in our conscience, but shouts in our pains: it is His megaphone to rouse a deaf world."

General Intercessions for Third Sunday of Advent, Cycle C (from Priests for Life)

Spanish Version

From Archives (Homily for Third Sunday of Advent, Year C):

2015: Are You Missing Out? Week 3: Joy
2012: What Should We Do?
2009: Joy as a Duty
2006: To Be a Happier Priest
2003: Profile in Courage
2000: A Priest's Examination of Conscience
1997: Rejoice Always!

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