Friday, December 9, 2011

Joy is the fruit of Hope, not naive optimism

Third Sunday of Advent Year B

Today, I opened the newspapers and just like any other ordinary day of the week I’m confronted with a whole range of bad news, disasters and tragedies. Even if we were to come across some piece of good news, one isn’t really sure whether it’s the truth or just another propaganda churned out by the establishment. The politics in this country is really so bad that I don’t think I would even vote in the next elections. What’s the point? All the candidates would be equally abysmal. There is simply no hope that things are going to get better. The economy is going to the dogs and there is nothing I can do about it. My job is at risk, I’m not sure if I will be retrenched or whether I will be able to find a job after that. I can’t even migrate since I don’t have the money to do so and all these countries where my friends have migrated to have since imposed conditions that are impossible to fulfil. My doctor just diagnosed me with cancer and tells me that I’ve got a few more months to live. What am I complaining about? Perhaps, this is the best news yet. It would mean that I wouldn’t have to endure any more dreary years of pain and suffering. Recently, I’ve lost someone very dear to me and no amount of grieving is going to take away the pain of the loss. Sigh ….

This litany of sorrows and woes is just a simple demonstration to show that it is not difficult to see the negative, the dark and gloomy and to find ourselves stuck in a mire of despair. It is no wonder that so many people in our society are depressed, cynical and suicidal. Joy, on the other hand, is something elusive. We experience fleeting moments of happiness but then the looming darkness, which never really disappears, returns to burst the bubble of our naïve optimism.

Against this tide, not just a tide but a tsunami of despair, today’s liturgy shouts out this refrain: “Rejoice! Exult for Joy! Be happy at all times!” Our senses seem to want to shout back: “What’s there to be joyful about?” “Is the Church blind?” “Is God blind to our troubles?” Well, you need to understand that Joy is the central theme throughout the readings this Sunday. Indeed, the Third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete Sunday.” “Gaudete” is the Latin word meaning ‘rejoice.’ What joy can there be in the midst of so much pain, suffering, gloom and darkness? It is certainly not the joy that emerges from some false optimism on our part that things are going to get better – too often, we can attest to this, things in fact get worse. Neither is it the joy that comes from creating an illusory world in our minds where pain and suffering is denied. So what is this joy which the readings are speaking of? The answer lies in Christ. It is the joy of knowing that our Lord, the light of the World, is coming. He is coming to dispel the darkness of our lives.

We are called to rejoice, because the Lord is coming – he is coming to save us, to liberate us, and to give us new life. Many of us may be experiencing some form of darkness in our lives. We find ourselves in the midst of problems without any apparent solution. We see ourselves ‘captives’ of our difficult circumstances, there seems to be no way out. Our hearts may be broken because of rejection or we have been hurt by the actions and words of others. We see ourselves poor, hungering and thirsting for friendship, understanding and a sense of belonging. Some of us find ourselves trapped in the darkness of sin.

If we see ourselves in any of these situations, rejoice and be glad, because the today’s readings promise good news. This is the promise of God, as St. Paul tells us in the second reading: “God has called you and he will not fail you.” God is always faithful. God keeps his promise. God will not fail you. This is the good news of the prophet Isaiah in the first reading: The Spirit of the Lord has been given to us – it is good news to the poor, healing to the broken hearted, freedom to the captives, a message of blessing for everyone. The Good news is that which is announced by John the Baptist in the gospel – Jesus has come – he is the Light of the World – and he is waiting to enter into your hearts and into your lives once again.

Thus, Joy surprises us. It shows up in unexpected places. It goes against the tide. We often think that being pessimistic is realistic. It is joy which gives a realistic vision of life. When I speak of joy, here it is not the false optimism that things are going to get better in the near future or that you would find an answer to your predicament. Rather, this joy is one which springs from faith and hope – it is based on our hope and belief that God has not abandoned us even when we do not see him in the midst of our troubles.

St. Paul says, "Rejoice always!" It's not a suggestion, like "cheer up, " or "look on the sunny side." It is, rather, a command, "Rejoice." Not only when things are going well. Not just when I am getting my way - but always. "Rejoice always." St. Paul can command joy because joy requires a conscious choice. Thus, joy is not just the consequence of your surrounding circumstances – when thing are going well for you. Rather, joy is always a deliberate choice. You can choose to be joyful even when things don’t seem to be going according plan.

So, what’s the formula for this joy? Do we need to whistle a tune or sing Bobby Mcferrin’s ‘Don’t worry be happy’? Do we need to escape into an imaginary world so that we can consider all pain and suffering as illusory? St Paul in today’s second reading gives us the answer: to pray without ceasing, to give thanks on all occasions and to avoid sin and evil.

Joy comes to those who pray without ceasing, to those who are committed to pray not only in moments of joy but also in times of sorrow, who are able to pray in the midst of troubles, confusion and the even during the dark night of the soul, where our prayers seem unanswered. Prayer is giving voice to our hope. It is a hope that does not disappoint because it is based on our firm belief that God has not and will not abandon us. Therefore, Christian hope has nothing to do with the false optimism or wishful thinking that our sickness will be healed, the problem will be solved, the obstacle would be removed, and the pain would be relieved. All these things may continue to accompany and harangue us, and yet we believe that they do not mark an end to life and joy. We will be delivered in one way or another. God has promised something far greater than the momentary relief we seek in this present life. God has promised us eternal life. This is our confident expectation.

How do we know that our hope will not be in vain? It is through the virtue of gratitude. Gratitude is remembering how God has delivered us from past evils, how God has intervened in a situation that seemed hopeless, how God has sustained us to endure the greatest of trials and how God remains faithful to his promises. Hope is firmly anchored in the history and narrative of Scriptures. Gratitude brings to mind the memory of God’s faithfulness which pierces the misty veil created by our present difficulties.

Finally, joy comes to those who persevere in their pursuit of holiness, who choose to avoid sin and evil in their daily lives. Mankind constantly searches for the sociological, economic, political or even philosophical reason and cause for suffering. What man often forgets is that suffering has its roots in a theological cause – it is sin and evil that brought suffering into this world. No amount of motivational programming, counseling, socio-economic-political reform will be able to rid this world of suffering unless man is prepared to address the issue of sin and evil.

Rejoice and be glad, the good news is that God has not abandoned us. He is here present among us. There is joy in knowing that God waits for us although we may have forgotten him. God waits for us although we may have stopped waiting for him. He keeps a lantern lit in the window, so that we who are lost would find our way home. This is true joy – knowing that no matter what happens in life, no matter how bad the situation may become, God’s love for us will endure and will triumph at the end.

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