FINDING COMPLETE JOY IN CHRIST
SCRIPTURE READINGS: [ ACTS 15:7-21; PS 96:1-3, 10; JOHN 15:9-11 ]
“I have told you this so that my own joy may be in you and your joy be complete.” Life without joy has no meaning. We all need joy in life. In fact, a life without joy is to fall into the trap of the Evil One. There is a real danger that some of us may indulge in the perverted joy of lamenting and whining, feeling forlorn and melancholic, depressed and engage in self-pity. This is what the devil wants so that we give up hope on ourselves, the world and ultimately on God and then commit suicide. The devil’s goal is to destroy us and take away our happiness because he envies us when we are happy. The truth in life is that those who are unhappy want to see others unhappy as well. Like the devil, they become very jealous of us when they see us happy and joyful.
St Francis always reminded his disciples that joy belongs to the Lord, sadness belongs to the devil. He forbade his followers to display sadness in front of others unless one is with the Lord. He said “My best defense against all the plots and tricks of the enemy is still the spirit of joy. The devil is never so happy as when he has succeeded in robbing one of God’s servants of the joy in his or her soul. The devil always has some dust on hold that he blows into someone’s conscience through a small basement window so as to make opaque what is pure. But in a heart that is filled with joy, he tries in vain to introduce his deadly poison. The demons can do nothing against a servant of Christ whom they find filled with holy gladness; whereas a dejected, morose and depressed soul easily lets itself be submerged in sorrow or captured by false pleasures.” (Vita Secunda of St. Francis, §125 and 127)
Indeed, joy is essential to the proclamation of the gospel. It is not without reason that Pope Francis in his first encyclical wrote the “The Gospel of Joy”, Evangelii Gaudium. He warns us that without joy in our hearts, we cannot proclaim the gospel. “Consequently, an evangelizer must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral! Let us recover and deepen our enthusiasm, that ‘delightful and comforting joy of evangelizing, even when it is in tears that we must sow… And may the world of our time, which is searching, sometimes with anguish, sometimes with hope, be enabled to receive the good news not from evangelizers who are dejected, discouraged, impatient or anxious, but from ministers of the Gospel whose lives glow with fervour, who have first received the joy of Christ'”. (EG 10)
How, then, can we find complete and true joy? It can only be found in Christ alone. At the outset of his encyclical, Pope Francis wrote, “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.” (EG 1) Joy is lost because we have fallen out of love with Jesus. Joy is missing because we are not in Jesus’ embrace and security. Again, Pope Francis wrote, “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord’. The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realize that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms.” (EG 3) This is what Jesus is inviting us all in the gospel. “As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you. Remain in my love.” Only in the love of Jesus, His unconditional, forgiving and all-embracing, providential love, can we find true joy and security in our lives. There is no greater security in life than to rest in the love of Christ since He is our security, our joy, our hope and our life.
But how can we remain in His love? Jesus said, “If you keep my commandments you will remain in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and remain in his love.” Does this mean that by simply keeping His commandments we will remain in His love? We must try to understand what Jesus meant when He said that to remain in His love we must keep His commandments. If it is just a matter of obeying the commandments and keeping the rules, we will eventually lose our joy. If marriage is simply a question of indissolubility until death, then the relationship becomes burdensome. This was what happened to the Jews during the time of Jesus and the apostles. They thought that by simply observing the rules and the laws, they would be saved. St Peter himself admitted in his counsel to his brothers that even though the Jews were very strict with regard to the observance of the laws, they themselves fell short of fulfilling them not just in letter but also in spirit. Hence, he advised, “It would only provoke God’s anger now, surely, if you imposed on the disciples the very burden that neither we nor our ancestors were strong enough to support? Remember, we believe that we are saved in the same way as they are: through the grace of the Lord Jesus.”
This in no way denies the importance of keeping the commandments but they are to be kept beyond just the letter of the laws. More importantly, one must keep the spirit of the laws. So the commandments are meant to guide us, to help us to love God and our fellowmen. Commandments cannot cover all the different scenarios and circumstances when we are called to love God and others. At most, they give general guidelines and principles to govern us and be applied accordingly in concrete circumstances. So by keeping the commandments, we will stay in the love of Jesus. If we break the commandments, infringe the intent of these commandments, we would have failed in love. When we fail in love, we lose the joy that Jesus gives to us.
I am always reminded in one of the verses of this beautiful hymn from the Divine Office which we sing during Eastertide which says, “Paschal triumph, paschal joy. Only sin can this destroy.” Nothing can take away the joy of the resurrection except sin alone. So if we live a virtuous life of integrity and compassion, free from sin, the joy of the Risen Lord will always be with us. But sin causes sadness in our hearts. It keeps us away from the Lord. Sin hardens our hearts. The letter of Hebrew says, “Take care, brothers and sisters, that none of you may have an evil, unbelieving heart that turns away from the living God. But exhort one another every day, as long as it is called “today,” so that none of you may be hardened by the deceitfulness of sin.” (Heb 3:12f) So sin takes away our joy because we block the love of God from reaching out to us.
Indeed, the great joy of a Christian is founded on the gratuitous love of God and His unconditional forgiveness. It is not by good works or by the observance of the laws that we are saved. St Peter said, “My brothers … God, who can read everyone’s heart, showed his approval of them by giving the Holy Spirit to them just as he had to us. God made no distinction between them and us, since he purified their hearts by faith.” It is faith in God’s love in Christ and His forgiveness that we are saved. Indeed, St Peter was clear that salvation is not from the laws since God Himself gave them the joy of the Holy Spirit even though they were gentiles and not bound by the laws. In other words, one does not have to be a Jew first before he becomes a Christian. Christianity supersedes the old covenant.
Out of this love of God in our hearts, we love others with deference and sensitivity. Joy comes from inclusiveness and mutual respect. This was the advice of the apostles. Let the rules be minimal and keep to only the essentials. They should accept the Gentiles without having them observe the customs of the Jewish Christians as we are not saved by the laws. On the other hand, Gentile converts must be sensitive to the Jewish Christians because they had been brought up by their tradition. So they should not unsettle them by conducting themselves in such a way that offends the sensitivities of the Jewish Christians. Hence, St James decreed, “I rule, then, that instead of making things more difficult for pagans who turn to God, we send them a letter telling them merely to abstain from anything polluted by idols, from fornication, from the meat of strangled animals and from blood.” Other than the sin of sexual immorality, it is significant that as time progressed, the other customary laws became redundant.
In the final analysis, Christian joy comes from the Lord Himself, His love and His mercy. Out of this experience, we joyfully announce to the world the wonders of God. “Proclaim his help day by day, tell among the nations his glory and his wonders among all the peoples.” By announcing His love and mercy in praises, we must also announce them in words and actions as well in the way we treat and respect others, especially the weak, the broken-hearted, the sinners and those oppressed and in need. By sharing our joy with them, we share in the complete joy that the Lord gives to us.
Written by The Most Rev William Goh, Roman Catholic Archbishop of Singapore © All Rights Reserved
Best Practices for Using the Daily Scripture Reflections
- Encounter God through the spirit of prayer and the scripture by reflecting and praying the Word of God daily. The purpose is to bring you to prayer and to a deeper union with the Lord on the level of the heart.
- Daily reflections when archived will lead many to accumulate all the reflections of the week and pray in one sitting. This will compromise your capacity to enter deeply into the Word of God, as the tendency is to read for knowledge rather than a prayerful reading of the Word for the purpose of developing a personal and affective relationship with the Lord.
- It is more important to pray deeply, not read widely. The current reflections of the day would be more than sufficient for anyone who wants to pray deeply and be led into an intimacy with the Lord.
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