One of the criticisms often thrown at us Christians is that we are only in it so that we can get to heaven; that the joy we offer is only the joy after death, whilst all we can offer now is struggle and suffering. Now we all know that’s not true, that we Christians will always support anything that brings help to the suffering, anything that can improve the life of our fellow human beings. That’s why in our Gospel today (Matthew 11:2-11) when asked whether he is the Christ, the one bringing in the kingdom of God, Jesus replies by telling them to look at what he is doing – “the blind see.. the lame walk.. lepers are cleansed… the deaf hear…and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”
So, yes, we do offer a promise of joy beyond death, a promise that our loved ones who have died are not lost in the darkness, but are drawn into the glory and light of God. But that promise of joy beyond suffering and death is also a challenge to us Christians to bring into this life as much of the joy of God as is possible. To us they are not alternatives : either joy now or joy after death, but two sides of the same coin. The joy that is promised, encourages and inspires us to make that joy present for people now, to help them to see the glory of God in small ways in their own lives now.
However we Christians are also realists. The Old Testament sometimes gives the impression that God will give everyone total joy now before we die. This is because when it was written the Jewish people did not have a belief in life with God beyond death. Christians always read and interpret the Old Testament through the teachings of Jesus, and so the beautiful passage from Isaiah that we have today (Isaiah 35:1-6.10) becomes a promise of help now, yes “Say to all faint hearts. Courage. Do not be afraid.”; but is also a promise, that what we receive now is nothing to what will happen when we meet God face to face : “They will come to Zion shouting for joy, everlasting joy on their faces.” (Zion is another word for Jerusalem, and both are used by us Christians as a way of talking about heaven – the City where God lives in everlasting light)
The realism is shown very clearly in our 2nd Reading (James 5:7-10) where we are told to “Be patient”. This surely doesn’t mean that we should sit around vaguely waiting for God to do something. We are called to be like Jesus, to bring in the kingdom NOW, with our actions caring for others, and in our attitude to life – bringing God to others with a smiling face.
This chimes in with what Pope Francis has been saying and doing, doesn’t it? No wonder he’s been declared Person of the Year by Time Magazine! His latest piece of teaching is actually called “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelium Gaudii in Latin) where he reminds us that we’re each called, whatever our vocation, to bring the joy of the Gospel to all around us. The Pope challenges you and me to “appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty, and who invite others to a delicious banquet. [For] it is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’”, just as one is attracted to the light.”
Proselytizing means going on about the teaching of the Church, rather than living it out in joyful caring lives; and it is something we priests have to be very careful about. The temptation is, that because we have the privilege of “going on” about the Gospel up here at Mass, we do “go on” about it, rather than living it out in love and service to others. When therefore I hear of priests who say Mass and preach but hardly speak to, or make themselves available for, those who come to church, I find myself getting angry!
But we priests are sinners like everyone else, we are not perfect – another thing that Pope Francis has pointed out. He recently encouraged people to make their Confession, but he did this not by going on about it, but just by telling them that this is what he does, every two weeks, and he often asks us to pray for him. So let me do the same for you. I will be going to Confession on Tuesday morning, and hope some of you will come to our Penitential Service onTuesday evening, or make your Confession at some time in preparation for Christmas. We all might think, as we do this, of the areas in which we have failed to bring God’s joy to the world. What more could we have done in one way or another to bring in God’s kingdom? In what way could we have been more generous to the poor and those in need or sorrow? How often have we shown a gloomy rather than a smiling face, have been moaners making others feel sad, rather than people who in simple ways bring a little bit of joy to others?