|Conversion of St. Paul|
The second reading was the first letter from Paul to the Thessalonians, and this letter is interesting because it's the very first piece of the New Testament to be written. Paul's two letter to the Thessalonians were written in about 50 or 51 a.d., and that predates any other piece of our New Testament. So we can imagine at that point there was still a whole lot about Jesus' life and actions the early Christians were still trying to digest, but this much was sure: his followers had to be people of joy and hope.
When we consider our own lives and all the difficulties involved in them, we might be tempted to tell Paul, "I'll be thankful when there's something to be thankful for, but I can't do it all the time. It's a bit unrealistic to expect me to be joyful always because my life is different than yours, you don't understand the things I have to deal with." Yes, Paul's life was indeed different than yours. In another letter he writes, "Five times at the hands of the Jews I received forty lashes minus one. Three times I was beaten with rods, once I was stoned, three times I was shipwrecked, I passed a night and a day on the deep; on frequent journeys, in dangers from rivers, dangers from robbers, dangers from my own race, dangers from Gentiles, dangers in the city, dangers in the wilderness, dangers at sea, dangers among false brothers; in toil and hardship, through many sleepless nights, through hunger and thirst, through frequent fastings, through cold and exposure. And apart from these things, there is the daily pressure upon me of my anxiety for all the churches" (2 Cor 11:24-28). Despite everything he experienced, Paul's command is still to rejoice always! How does he say this?!
Paul knew that ultimately, the victory wasn't his to win. The battle and the victory ultimately belong to Jesus, and he's already won. Paul can be joyful because he knows that his sufferings do not mean he has failed in his work. He knows that his sufferings do not mean that Jesus doesn't love him. We rejoice in the fact that Jesus is the Savior of all, because that fact is not diminished by any suffering we experience in this life.
|John the Baptist points to Christ|
This recognition that "I am not the Christ" gets to the heart of Paul's command to be joyful. Paul can be joyful because he knows that ultimately, it doesn't depend on him. Whatever was going wrong in Paul's life, and there was a lot that we heard about, Paul was confident that Jesus was in control.
We too can be joyful that no matter what is going wrong in our life, Jesus is ultimately in control. We are commanded to be joyful. And yet, this joy isn't always easy to come by. Paul's command to rejoice always actually sounds kind of stupid if we hear it the wrong way. We need to differentiate between joy and happiness, because he certainly wasn't telling us to be happy all the time. Happiness or sorrow exist in response to the circumstances of our lives. I'm sure Paul wasn't smiling when he was shipwrecked or getting whipped, yet his joy was unshakeable. Joy exists at the level of our soul. Joy comes from knowing you are a beloved son or a beloved daughter of God our Father. Joy comes from rejoicing in that relationship. Rejoicing can exist right alongside sorrow, we see that even in our liturgy. At the beginning of Mass the first thing we do is recall our sins, and this remembrance of our sins, of our wretchedness, is then laced right into this deep and profound encounter with the God who loves us. Here at Mass we experience the deepest joy possible this side of heaven, and the sorrow of our sins exists right alongside it, it even amplifies our joy.
As we celebrate Guadete Sunday, check your heart to make sure that in the craziness of this season, you haven't lost the essential joy of Christmas. The Lord is near, as John the Baptist wants to tell us, so before he arrives, rekindle the joy of Christmas in your heart.