Scripture Reflections

December 17, 2023
Third Sunday of Advent
Isaiah 61:1-2, 10-11
1 Thessalonians 5:16-24
John 1:6-8, 19-28

This Sunday, “Rejoice!” seems to be the password for the journey from Advent into the season of Christmas. “I rejoice heartily,” professes the poet and prophet Isaiah, “heartily in the Lord.” “Rejoice!” urges the Letter of Paul to the Thessalonians, “Rejoice always.”

Dare we rejoice, however, when the world is in pain and humanity pulsates with war, when planet earth seems to be fading in its brilliance, when children cry for food with a voice that echoes in their throats?

Dare we rejoice when patience finds no home in our discourse, when truth is labeled as a lie, and when intolerance is praised while understanding and compromise are cursed?

Dare we rejoice when the chasm between the rich and the poor grows day by day, when the rains of violence in our cities seems to thunder unabated, when diversity among us is sought to be erased?

With so much suffering in human life, we hesitate to rejoice lest we insult those who suffer.

In a poem entitled “A Brief for the Defense,” poet Jack Gilbert insists we must live with joy even though life is not all we would hope it to be. Why? Because God has created us for joy.

Sorrow everywhere. Slaughter everywhere. If babies / are not starving someplace, they are starving / somewhere else. With flies in their nostrils. / But we enjoy our lives because that’s what God wants. / Otherwise the mornings before summer dawn would not / be made so fine.

Indeed, do we dare not rejoice? Without joy, the Devil grins and dances a jig. Without joy, God’s Spirit is quenched. Without joy, God is indeed dead, for joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.

The poet goes on to say that we must risk being a people of joy for the sake of those who struggle,

If we deny our happiness, resist our satisfaction, / we lessen the importance of their deprivation. / We must risk delight. We can do without pleasure, / but not delight. Not enjoyment. We must have / the stubbornness to accept our gladness in the ruthless / furnace of this world. To make injustice the only / measure of our attention is to praise the Devil.

Yes, indeed, God has created us for joy, for without it this fractured world can never be healed, can never dream of peace as possible, can never make justice blossom.

On an autumn day, a cluster of us who had gathered wondered aloud what it was that made joy be joy. So much more than simply being happy, we thought, or having a cold beer on a hot summer day, or a day free from work or school.

We do not live with joy because we are blind about what is but because we see with new and different eyes. Joy is goodness even when much of life says it is not so. Joy is living with hope even when we find ourselves in the shadows.

How is it that some find themselves living with an inner joy even amid the struggles and distractions and demands of those around them?

How is it that while poverty can sag the human spirit, drag it down and all but seem to cripple hope, yet there will be those who live with little yet also with the joy of being surrounded by those they love and those who love in return? By some mysterious ability they shrug off misfortune, treasure the little life has given, and laugh in the face of what is — side by side, poverty and joy. How is that so?

Contrary to all that would be thought true, how is it that there are those who find themselves making their final journey into the beyond, yet are able to live their final days with a peaceful joy that life has been a blessing beyond anything to be deserved — side by side, the dying and the joying. How is that so?

Joy can buoy us in the darkest of times. It can renew us when all else seems to fail. Joy can undo loneliness even when we find ourselves alone. It can surprise us beyond expectations. When we seek joy, it eludes us. When we try to buy it, it evaporates. Yet joy will seep through the cracks of life’s perpetual assaults. In the lyrics of the song “Anthem” by Leonard Cohen, “There is a crack in everything, it’s how the light gets in.”

The person of faith cannot help but live with joy for joy is the most infallible sign of the presence of God.


What is the difference between happiness and joy?

What does the poet mean when he writes, “to make injustice the only measure of our attention is to praise the Devil?”