Learning to Rejoice in the Lord

Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; Luke 1:46-48, 49-50, 53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28

In our second reading, St. Paul tells us to “rejoice always,” as does our whole liturgy. And our opening antiphon states what is to be the principal cause of our rejoicing, citing another Pauline text (Phil 4:4), we are to rejoice “in the Lord.”

Now, to “rejoice” is not the same as taking in the pleasure of the senses, not the same as basking in comfort. Pleasure and comfort are the rewards that our own society so often has to offer us; but do they bring joy? Nearly 40 years ago, Pope Paul VI already stated that our ‘technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy’ (Gaudete in Domino, 1975, I); and  Pope Francis, citing this text in Evangelii Gaudium, believes that this is just as true today.

Granted, it is possible to mark joyous occasions with pleasures, more broadly speaking; we do this with food and drink, chiefly. In so doing, we allow the body to follow along with the spirit, as it were; there is nothing wrong with this. Even in Catholic circles, the great feast of the coming of the Lord is surrounded with such delights. Parents promise children not only the pleasures of the palate, but presents; St. Nicholas brings them on the great feast of the coming of the Lord. All of this builds a sense of expectation, an anticipation. But these gifts and goodies ought only to mark the reason for the feast. They themselves are not the reason for celebrating; they are not the reason for us to be full of joy.

Joy is a special kind of pleasure. As our brother St. Thomas Aquinas teaches, it is a spiritual, intellectual delight (Summa Theologiae I-II, question 31, article 3). He notes that spiritual and intellectual pleasures (which require intellect) are, in themselves, greater than bodily and sensible pleasures (ibid., article 5), perhaps especially because spiritual good is greater in itself than bodily good. He notes that a sign of this is the fact that we are willing to suffer for them. The rejoicing that we are about this Advent is indeed a spiritual rejoicing, for it requires faith to believe that the Lord will come to us. How did our Blessed Mother put it, as she anticipated the coming of the Lord to her? Without intending any disrespect to the late James Brown, she did not say, “I feel good.” Rather, she said: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord, My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” Hers was truly a spiritual joy – spiritual, but very real. 

She was joyful, due to her own virtue of faith, for she “believed that what was spoken” to her by the Lord “would be fulfilled.” Indeed, St. Thomas states that one must be virtuous to rejoice at what is good (ibid., ad 1). We must know and believe what it is right to rejoice about, and must regularly do so, to be trained to develop a habit of looking for that goodness. St. Paul stated that love “does not rejoice at wrong, but rejoices in the right” – suggesting that “rejoicing in the wrong” is quite possible. 

So, this means that we do not automatically rejoice in what is really good. All too often, we are more attached to whatever keeps us comfortable, or whatever gives us greater immediate pleasure, or mere bodily pleasure. There are even ways in which we can have a vicious kind of spiritual delight at what is really not good, such as schadenfreude: pleasure derived from knowing of the misfortunes of others.

Evangelii Gaudium speaks of some particular temptations against joy in the good news, temptations that particularly befall those of the faith: selfishness and spiritual sloth, pessimism, a warring among ourselves, and a spiritual worldliness that hides behind the appearance of piety and even love for the Church, but in fact seeks “not the Lord’s glory but human glory and personal well-being.” Pope Francis notes that “Sometimes we are tempted to find excuses and complain, acting as if we could only be happy if a thousand conditions were met” (Evangelii Gaudium, 7). There are many ways in which we can lose sight of what is truly, spiritually good.

Now someone might object to all of this, thinking that our attitudes are not really open to change: “This is all well and good, but I cannot really control my desires, can I? When I want something, I cannot very well deny that I want it; and if I do not want something, I cannot just decide to desire it, can I?” It is true that we cannot control our feelings and desires at each moment. But we can control how we decide to respond to our desires and how we develop them: we can decide which desires to pursue, which to ignore, which to investigate – and we can also look into why we are not attracted to the things that ought to attract us. That is, we can ask: Have we paid attention to the voice crying in the wilderness – our own wilderness? Have we made straight the way of the Lord – to ourselves? Does our greatest joy come from the knowledge that our Savior is coming to us? Are we impelled by the hope that the many lost sheep will return to the fold – that those who have given up looking for the Lord might look to Him again? Do we embrace, as Pope Francis has called us to, a missionary spirituality – a fervent desire that more and more people may await the blessed hope and the coming of the Lord Jesus Christ to them?

If we find that these are not among our deepest desires, we can ask for help in this. We need help in this. The traditional prayer, “Come Holy Spirit,” asks for that same Spirit “to kindle in us the fire of love,” to “help us to relish what is right and always rejoice” in His consolation.

As we pay more attention to true goodness, to looking for our Lord, as we pray for help within us, we can notice something that can happen to our desires and even to our feelings: they can become slowly transformed. They are drawn along with our minds into an eagerness to greet Him. Our desires, our feelings even, can be educated and elevated by the Lord himself, through our own cooperation with his work in us.

Our own circumstances are not an obstacle to this, difficult though they may be. Pope Francis observed that “the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy” can be found “in poor people who had little to hold on to” and among others who, “even amid pressing professional obligations, are able to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith.” This joy flows from “the infinite love of God, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.” No one is too poor, or too busy, to rejoice in the Lord, always.

As Mary awaited the birth of her Son our Lord, she proclaimed the Lord’s greatness: “My soul rejoices in my God.” Let our voice be one with hers, rejoicing in the Lord, always. Amen.

--by Fr. Bryan Kromholtz, O.P.
December 14, 2014

 5890 Birch Court   ~   Oakland, CA   ~   94618-1627  ~   510.596.1800   ~   Western Dominican Province
© St. Albert's Priory, 2014