The nature of real joy

HOMILY for Advent 3

Today we’ve heard from Isaiah in our 1st reading (35:1-6.10) that heaven, being with God, is to be full of everlasting joy. But what on earth does that mean? Nowadays, the only way we use the word “joy” in English is when we talk of enjoying ourselves. But that’s surely not what we Christians mean by joy, because joy for us is something deep down within us and is not the same as simple pleasure or surface happiness.

Perhaps we can get a clue to what it means by thinking of how we give joy to others. We can make people happy by giving them pleasure or taking away their pain or their problem. Joy however is something people can have even when they remain troubled or in pain. If we visit someone who is sick or sad, or give them support by text, email or facebook, or by sending them a little letter or card, we don’t necessarily make anything physically better for them, and yet the very fact that they know we care is a tremendous support for them. It gives them deep joy. This is precisely why it is so important to do things like this, even if they seem so small.

Actually it’s the same as what we do for others when we go to Mass. We may not even talk to many people, apart from saying “Peace be with you” to those around us ; we may not have time to stop afterwards for a drink and a bit to eat ; and yet our very presence is actually a support for others, just as their presence is a support for us. We are giving each other joy. People who stop going to Mass because they say that they don’t get anything out of it are missing the point twice. First, what we get out of Mass is rarely going to be something we feel on the surface, and anyway second, and much more important, we go to Mass principally to offer ourselves in love and thanksgiving to God, and in so doing to do something very powerful for those at Mass with us.

In the Gospel, (Matt 11:2-11) Jesus points out that the healing of the sick and the giving of the Gospel (the good news of God) to others are the most important signs of God’s kingdom – of his presence with us. Now I can tell you stories of a few occasions when I have prayed with the sick or the dying and the result has been miraculous, but I also have to tell you that most of the time when I pray with or for people nothing outwardly remarkable happens at all. Yet I know that the very fact that I care, that I do pray for someone, is a tremendous support to them. It gives them great joy even if their pain or sadness continues.

You mustn’t underestimate the way God can work in you like this. You may never see a miracle take place when you pray, but you might if you do it regularly enough.  And even if you do not pray out loud in the presence of the person, as I often do as a priest, your presence, your visit, your few kind words, your hand on their shoulder, or your hug, should never be underestimated. Indeed God has made us so that even if we don’t believe in him, our care for others, as I have just described, is an important part of their healing process. Statistics show us that those who are sick and have no visits, no human care surrounding them from family and friends, take much longer to get better after an illness or an operation. It is part of the way God has created us. It is one of the glories of our human nature.

But, as St Thomas Aquinas said, “grace perfects nature”. So when we pray, when we gather together for Mass, the non-believing psychologists and sociologist can quite rightly say that this process, by which we support one another, is part of nature. Where they go wrong is then to go on to say that since it is natural, God has nothing to do with it. Actually the only thing God has nothing to do with are things that are unnatural.

So whilst the non-believer helps others with kind thoughts and actions, the believer supplements that natural process by doing all this with prayer, and in so doing the natural process takes on a supernatural property. It does not fundamentally change what happens but enhances it, in what can sometimes be a spectacular manner. The idea that the natural and the supernatural are totally different things is therefore simply not true.

Thus today calls us to action. It is not enough just to think how good and kind Jesus is to us, we have to be Jesus to others, to bring his joy to others and thus bring in his kingdom. The processes by which this happens will not be obvious which is why our 2nd reading (James 5:7-10) tells us to “think of a farmer : how patiently he waits for the precious fruit of the ground” We too must get on with this whether we see results or not, because in it all God is at work, and the final result will be everlasting joy!

 

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