The Path to Spiritual Joy

Homily for the Third Sunday of Advent, Year C.

“What gives you joy as a priest?” This is a question which people often ask me. Besides “Chick-fil-A,” people are often expecting me to say “baptisms” or “weddings” or perhaps “celebrating Mass.” And that’s true, all of these things bring me joy. But what people are often not expecting me to say is that what brings me joy is being with people in their darkest and most difficult moments. But it does—it brings me great joy. Being a priest is about bringing people to Jesus and bringing people to Jesus, and I get to do that in a special way in these moments. It’s a privilege to be able to bring the Light of the World into moments of darkness, and the Divine Physician into moments of pain and hurt. But how can these be moments of joy, not just for me, but for those who are going through them? How is it possible, as St. Paul says in our second reading, to “rejoice in the Lord always”? How is it possible to rejoice—not just sometimes, not just when things are calm and bright—but always, even when things are dark and difficult?

Joy, St. Thomas Aquinas says, is an effect of love (Summa Theologiae II-II, Q. 28, A. 1). And we experience joy when we are with the one we love or, if they are absent, if we at least know that they are doing well—doing well physically, but especially spiritually. We experience sorrow, on the other hand, when we are not with the one we love or when they are not doing well. If there’s someone we love that we can’t be with this Christmas, for example, we may be sad, but if we at least know that they are doing well, we will experience some amount of joy. And if there is someone we love that we can be with at Christmas, but they are not doing well, we will have at least some joy because we are with them, even if our joy is diminished by their condition. This is pretty simple and straightforward. And it makes perfect sense of our experience.

It also helps us understand how it’s possible to rejoice in the Lord always, even when things are dark and difficult. If we love God, St. Thomas says, then as Scripture tells us, we abide in God and God abides in us (1 Jn. 4:16). In other words, if we love God, then God is with us. And God is always doing well. He is goodness itself, and so He is never doing better or worse than He always is. He is always perfectly good. Therefore, it’s always possible to have joy in God, no matter what situation we are going through. If we love God, God will be with us, and we will experience joy in Him. It’s that simple. So, if we lack spiritual joy in our life, the first question we should ask ourselves is, “Do we love God?”

“If you love me,” Jesus says, “keep my commandments” (John 14:15). Keeping the moral law is the first step to experiencing spiritual joy. The one who does not keep God’s commandments cannot say that they love God. This is why our gospel which, at first glance, doesn’t seem to have anything to do with joy, actually has a great deal to do with it. In our gospel, St. John the Baptist tells the people to keep God’s commandments. “Tax collectors, stop stealing; soldiers, stop abusing your authority; everyone, feed the hungry and clothe the naked.” Our gospel concludes by saying that this was “good news” that John the Baptist was preaching to the people. God’s commandments might not sound like good news, but they actually are, because they are the first step toward experiencing spiritual joy.

But they are also just that—the first step. God has more joy in store for us than just the joy that comes from keeping His commandments. Just one chapter after Jesus says, “If you love me, keep my commandments,” he says, “I no longer call you servants, but friends” (John 15:15). We are called to love God not only with the heart of a servant, but with the heart of a friend. And this means taking time to grow in His friendship, especially through prayer and the sacraments. When we see God as a friend—and not just a friend, but in fact our best friend—then it will finally make sense to us how we can experience joy in God even in the darkest and most difficult circumstances. We know from experience that when we are filled with sorrow because our loved one is not with us or our loved one is not doing well, our sorrow is lifted somewhat when a friend is with us. And this is what God can be for us if we love Him, not just with a heart of a servant, but with the heart of a friend. When we love God with that kind of love, He will be with us, even in the darkest and most difficult circumstances, and we will experience spiritual joy.

Finally, when we are friends with someone, we seek to love those whom they love: their circle of love becomes our circle of love as well. And when this comes to God, this ultimately means loving everyone—even our in-laws, even those with whom we disagree politically, even those who do us harm. “Love your enemies,” Jesus says, “and pray for those who persecute you, so that you may be children of your heavenly Father” (Mt. 5:44-45). If we want to experience the fullness of spiritual joy, we must love not only with the heart of a servant and the heart of a friend, but with the heart of a child—a child of our heavenly Father.

A servant waits at the table. A friend has a seat at the table. But a child is his father’s arms at the head of the table. Joy comes from being with the one we love. If we love God with the heart of a servant, we will be with Him, be He will remain at a distance. If we love God with the heart of a friend, we grow closer to Him. But if we love Him with the heart of a child, we will rest next to His heart. This is the path to joy: first be a servant of God, next be a friend, but ultimately be a child. If we follow this path the rest of this Advent Season, we will know the joy of the Christ-child, Emmanuel, God with us. Amen.