Friday, December 14, 2012

All Joy and No Fun

Third Sunday of Advent Year C

An article in New York Magazine from July this year contained a cover story about why a lot of parents today seem to hate parenting. The story was aptly entitled, “All Joy and No Fun.” According to the article, the author made this observation that people often think, before they have children, that having them will make them happier. Instead, they find that taking care of them can be an unbearable torture. A study by Dale Kahneman, a behavioral economist, was quoted in the article as saying that on a survey of 909 working Texas mothers, child care ranked 16th out of a list of 19 as a pleasureable activity. Housework was rated higher! This is the brutal reality about having children—Children expose the gulf between our fantasies about family and its spikier realities.

When you think of what makes you happy, you can come up with a whole list of things that will give you pleasure – having a bowl of ice-cream, watching a comedy, getting the latest iphone or ipad mini as a Christmas present, going to the hair dressers, doing retail therapy, playing football in the rain, witnessing your toddler take his first steps, being with your loved ones etc. But such small pleasures are usually short term, they never really last. In contrast to this, you may have heard that Christ offers everlasting joy. But the last thing that seems fun to do, even for Christians, is being a Christian. The idea of Christian joy seems somewhat vague and illusive. In fact, being a Christian can sometimes feel like a killjoy. The reason is that we often equate joy with pleasure or fun.

Today’s liturgy summons us to embrace Joy! In fact, it is framed as a commandment in the second reading. St Paul tells the Philippians, “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord; I repeat, what I want is your happiness.” But I guess for many of us, the message just doesn’t seem to make any sense, especially when we feel no excitement or exhilaration in our lives.  A lot of us believe that joy or happiness is equivalent to pleasure or having fun. After last week’s reminder that Advent is a time to apply the brakes to immediate gratification, deny ourselves of some of the pleasures of this festive season, mute our carols and dampen our excitement for the Yuletide season, it’s hard to imagine how Advent can be a season of joy. The solemnity of the season of Advent seems to have taken all the fun out of Christmas.

Our search for pleasures and fun, in fact, has often distracted us from the authentic pursuit of Christian joy. We have become a distracted people. Here’s the root of the problem: we believe that pleasure and fun leads to joy. What we fail to recognise is that one of the roots of the desire for pleasure is the feeling of emptiness and the pain of boredom following from it. Paul Tillich, one of the greatest Protestant theologians of the 20th century noted that “of all the dangers that threaten our civilisation, this is one of the most dangerous: the escape from one’s emptiness, through fun, which makes joy impossible”. In our culture we are conditioned to consume what we want, not what we need. This is why the endless pursuit of happiness doesn’t necessarily lead to joy. Excess prevents us from being thankful with what we have. We become insatiable. We are also bombarded by attempts to manufacture desire. Much of our culture and economy is based on gratifying desires. This becomes most detrimental to cultivating joy when the cycle of manufacturing and gratifying desire becomes an endless pursuit of happiness. The endless pursuit of happiness often lead to financial burdens that create fear and anxiety. Joy is choked out by the weeds of fear and anxiety. Some of the desire that our culture tries to manufacture is the desire to feel safe. So we are sold products that are supposed to eliminate our fear and worry. But rather than eliminate fear and anxiety, this endless pursuit merely puts additional pressure on desire for gratification.

Finally, you come to realise: Life is often not the fairytale we expect. So what do we do when happiness eludes us? Where do we go when we have run out of avenues to manufacture and pursue pleasures and fun – when the effects of drugs and alcohol wears out, when the roller coaster ride ends, when the party is over? The answer is simple - We choose joy. But here lies the difficulty, how do we distinguish true joy from mere pleasure and fun? Unlike pleasure and fun which are often selfish and self-centered, joy is always directed outward. Inner joy leads to kindness, generosity, and love. St Paul wrote to his friends at Philippi an epistle of joy in spite of the fact that the Philippians were actually under a lot of pressure. In 2 Corinthians, Paul says this about those particular churches; particularly the Philippians church, “out of their severe trial, their overflowing joy and their extreme poverty welled up in rich generosity”. We derive pleasure and happiness from receiving. But joy is the wellspring of giving. We see generosity at the heart of the Baptist’s preaching in today’s gospel. Three groups of people ask John the Baptist what must they do. John exhorts them to share with those who are needy, be just and fair in our dealings; to refrain from intimidation and extortion to acquire what we want and finally to be satisfied with what we have. In other words, as we await the coming of Christ, we should not be selfish or greedy and think only of our own needs and wants.

Therefore it is hard to be happy and joyful when you are greedy and ambitious. When you are never satisfied with what you have, when you are always afraid of losing what you have, when you are jealous of other’s prosperity – it’s really hard to be happy. It is only the man who has discovered God as fulfilling his every heart’s desire who will be happy. Only God can fill the emptiness in our hearts. Only God can satisfy our deepest longings. Only God can be the source of everlasting joy. I think a big part of our problem is that we often have a tendency to want to create our own joy, our own happiness. I get joy through my hobbies, my relationships and my work. Nothing is wrong with that, in fact I am glad I can find happiness in so many things, it is a great gift. But here is the irony, this kind of joy doesn’t last. I get so busy manufacturing my own happiness that I fail to desire lasting Joy that comes only from God.

Joy comes from knowing that we are God's children. As the first reading reminds us, it is the joy of knowing that God has removed the judgment hanging over our heads; it is the joy of knowing that our Lord, our Mighty Saviour is in our midst and that “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.” It is the joy of knowing and trusting in God’s faithfulness and love. Despite all the uncertainties and pain in our lives, our God is with us. And this God, who has been good to us, will take care of all things. That joy is not found under the Christmas tree. That joy is not found in a new dress or a new bike. That joy is not found in being the most popular guy in the class. That joy is found only at the foot of the cross. Only when we come to recognise the love of God as displayed on the cross - the Son of God who has died for our sins, only then can we experience joy, lasting joy, real joy, the joy of a forgiven sinner, one who has been redeemed from sin and death, the joy of knowing that my salvation has been won by Christ on the cross and that he will return to complete what he has already begun. In the cross we come to discover that Joy is not the absence of sorrow but the presence of God. Thus the words of St Paul to the Philippians, "I want you to be happy," represents an ever-present element in the Bible. For Christians the lack of joy is a consequence of man’s separation from God, and the presence of joy is a consequence of the reunion with Him.

Thus, when we allow the God of Joy to fill our lives with his love, joy and peace, nothing can take away these things. Life need not be perfect and our problems may not be solved, but with God as the Lord and centre of our lives, nothing can take away the joy of being his beloved sons and daughters. That may not sound like fun to many pleasure seeking individuals, but for us Christians, its wonderful news to the ears; in fact, it is Pure Joy!  

No comments:

Post a Comment

Terms of Use: As additional measure for security, please sign in before you leave your comments.

Please note that foul language will not be tolerated. Comments that include profanity, personal attacks, and antisocial behaviour such as "spamming" and "trolling" will be removed. Violators run the risk of being blocked permanently. You are fully responsible for the content you post. Please be responsible and stay on topic.