GOD’S NEARNESS TO US IN THE HOLY SPIRIT IS THE CAUSE OF OUR JOY
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ ZEPH 3:14-18; IS 12; PHIL 4:4-7; LK 3:10-18 ]
We all desire to be happy and joyful. Who does not want to be happy in life? This too is the desire of a Christian. St Paul wrote to the Philippians saying, “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord; I repeat, what I want is your happiness.” Being a Christian is a call to happiness. Happiness presupposes life, peace and joy. For that is what Jesus said to the apostles, “I came that they may have life, and have it abundantly.” (Jn 10:10) “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you. I do not give to you as the world gives. Do not let your hearts be troubled, and do not let them be afraid.” (Jn 14:27) “Until now you have not asked for anything in my name. Ask and you will receive, so that your joy may be complete.” (Jn 16:24)
So, what is preventing us from being happy? It is our independence from God. We want to take charge of our lives without His assistance and His grace. Our pride wants us to do things our way. By supplanting the place of God, we have only ourselves to rely on. This makes us always anxious and worried about the future. We are afraid we might not have enough to take care of ourselves. We are afraid of death, which for us is the end of everything. As a result, we become selfish and defensive. We seek to grab as much as we can. We consider all others as our competitors. Most of all, we use dishonest and evil means to get what we want through lying, cheating, manipulation and intimidation.
Our sins cut us from God and our fellowmen. We lose our peace of mind. Our conscience is not at peace. We are unsettled. We create enemies all around us. We have no real friends because people fear us and distrust us. Our friendships and relationships are superficial. We live in fear of our wrongdoings being uncovered one day. We might be rich but we are always living in anxiety. We have a comfortable bed to lie on but cannot sleep at night because of guilt. This is the punishment that we impose upon ourselves because of our pride and selfishness. This is what John the Baptist warns us, “His winnowing-fan is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn; but the chaff he will burn in a fire that will never go out.”
So if we want happiness and true joy, we must turn away from sin and avoid punishing ourselves. This was what John the Baptist advised those who came to him. He asked us to be generous and to practise charity to all. “If anyone has two tunics he must share with the man who has none, and the one with something to eat must do the same.” To the tax collectors, he said to him, “Exact no more than your rate.” In other words, just do your duty well but be honest, fair and have integrity. Do not be greedy in overcharging those who pay taxes. To the soldiers, he said, “No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay!” In other words, do not use your power to manipulate people for your own benefit and enrichment. One should be contented with what is given. In the final analysis, right living, not selfish and irresponsible living is the way to find happiness and joy.
But we know that what we will, we cannot do. Just knowing what we should do does not mean we can do it. This is what St Paul experienced as well. He shared with us his struggles. “I do not understand my own actions. For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate. Now if I do what I do not want, I agree that the law is good. But in fact, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me. For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.” (Rom 7:15-20) That is why, whilst the preaching of John the Baptist was indeed correct, yet, it did not give the people the power to do what they were supposed to do.
This explains the difference between the baptism of John the Baptist and that of our Lord. John’s baptism took away sins through repentance and reformation. But it did not empower them to live a good life except through their own effort. Whereas the baptism of the Holy Spirit includes the bestowal of power and love symbolized by fire to empower us to proclaim the Good News and live the life of Christ. We no longer do it with our own strength but by the power of the Spirit of Jesus. Indeed, this is how the Lord is near to us, as St Paul says.
Today, St Paul encourages us to rejoice, even though he himself was in prison suffering! If we were in his shoes, we would be feeling disheartened and even depressed. But St Paul was very positive and upbeat even in suffering. What was the secret of his joy if not for the nearness of God? His happiness was not determined by external circumstances. Indeed, this is often the case. Happiness is not so much what we have but the state of our interior disposition and attitude towards life. That is why St Paul could later write, “I know what it is to have little, and I know what it is to have plenty. In any and all circumstances I have learned the secret of being well-fed and of going hungry, of having plenty and of being in need. I can do all things through him who strengthens me.” (Phil 4:12f)
Indeed, because of Christ, we know that God is near because He has forgiven us our sins. This is what the prophet said, “Shout for joy, daughter of Zion, Israel, shout aloud! Rejoice, exult with all your heart, daughter of Jerusalem! The Lord has repealed your sentence; he has driven your enemies away. The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst; you have no more evil to fear.” Our real enemies are our sins and the fear of death. Jesus came for all, including the tax-collectors, the most hated people, because they were greedy and dishonest; the Roman soldiers, the most hated army, because they abused their power and authority, and the prostitutes, the most despised people. God came to forgive us all. He came to offer us friendship, fellowship and communion with Him. He came to eat and drink with sinners.
He wants us to know that we are the object of God’s joy and delight. “When that day comes, word will come to Jerusalem; Zion, have no fear, do not let your hands fall limp. The Lord your God is in your midst, a victorious warrior. He will exult with joy over you, he will renew you by his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.” We are God’s beloved. This is concretely experienced when the Holy Spirit, which is the love of God, is poured into our hearts. (cf Rom 5:5) With the victory of Christ over sin and death in the power of His resurrection, He, with His Father, bestowed the Holy Spirit upon us all. “John declared before them all, ‘I baptise you with water, but someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals; he will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”
So let us rejoice in His nearness and His presence in our lives. He comes to us in the Holy Spirit. He comes to us through our brothers and sisters, if only we will open our arms to welcome them. He comes to us when we are tolerant and able to accommodate the imperfections of all. His nearness to us is the cause of peace in our hearts and minds. Like the psalmist, we only have to remember to give praise and thanksgiving for all that He has done for us. That is why He comes to us in prayer, praise and thanksgiving. St Paul wrote, “Let your tolerance be evident to everyone: the Lord is very near. There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving, and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus.” Knowing that He is with us gives us joy and strength to endure our sufferings and trials positively, as was the case with St Paul. Just as He came to the aid of St Paul, the Lord will also come to our help. With the psalmist, in faith, we also sing, “Truly, God is my salvation, I trust, I shall not fear. For the Lord is my strength, my song, he became my saviour. With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.”
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
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