“Now there were shepherds in that region living in the fields and keeping the night watch over their flock. The angel of the Lord appeared to them and the glory of the Lord shone around them, and they were struck with great fear. The angel said to them, “Do not be afraid; for behold, I proclaim to you good news of great joy.” The word ‘joy’ appears more often in Luke’s gospel than in any other New Testament writing. In the theological world view of the Gospel of Luke we live in a world redeemed and transformed by the birth, life, ministry, passion, death and resurrection of JC. In such a world there can be no other Christian response than joy!
Is joy an integral part of my response to life? I would like it to be. On Gaudete Sunday Pope Francis, in his Angelus address said, “It is not a joy that is merely anticipated or set in paradise….here on earth we are sad but in paradise we will be happy. No. It is not that. Rather, it is a joy that is already real…” Is this angelic proclamation of good news of great joy just something that pertains to a past event or a future heavenly reality? It cannot be just that. Or, we are all wasting our time celebrating Christmas.
Several years ago the author Ronald Rolheiser was treated for cancer. Following his diagnosis and treatment, here’s how he described his experience: “Life is what happens while you are planning your life; so too conversion. Having cancer taught me some lessons other than the ones I planned. Most important among these was this: Like everyone else in this world, I’ve always wanted joy in my life---friendship, love, celebration. But, and this has been the big handicap in finding these, I have always (however unconsciously) felt that the joy I so longed for could only come my way when I was finally free from all anxiety, emotional tension, pressure, overwork, illness, frustration, and stress of all kinds. We nurse this strange fantasy that it is only after all our bills are paid, our health is perfect, all tensions within our families and friendships are resolved, and we are in a peaceful, leisured space that we can finally enter life and enjoy it. In the meantime, we put our lives on hold as we perpetually gear up, get ready and wait for that perfect moment to arrive where we can finally rejoice within life.”
What if it is God who is waiting. Waiting for us to wake up to something, SOMEONE who is already here!] Waiting for us to really hear and believe the good news of great joy. “Today in the town of David.” This today is more than just a chronological date. It is the now; the ever-present now of God’s eternity bursting forth in time.
This joy is fundamentally God’s doing. In fact, it is the overflow of God’s joy in our lives. The very joy that God takes in creating us; in being close to us---so close as to become enfleshed; the joy that God takes in redeeming us and forgiving us. Such joy can in no way be produced on demand. The deepest joys in our lives sort of creep up on us when we aren’t looking.
And this joy doesn’t take away the reality of threat or risk or suffering. But how can I know this joy in a world that is so full of atrocity and injustice? How can I know this joy when I am so aware of my own failures, my own shabbiness, my own depression? I have no theoretical answer to such questions. Because it has nothing to do with theory. It is not something you can get your head around. It simply happens this way. It is just here as sheer gift! In the “today”of the here and now of our concrete lives. Not somewhere else. Not later. Today!
There is nothing theoretical about God’s closeness to us. And this closeness is offered to us not as some sort of a guarantee of a perfectly happy life, in the sense of one that is free from tension, pain or disappointment. But to affirm that whatever happens in this unpredictable world---sometimes wonderfully, sometimes horribly unpredictable---there is a deeper level of reality at work, a world within the world, so to speak. This is at the heart of the Christmas mystery and the source of our joy. God, the creator, becomes a creature. The infinite God becomes finite---a crying, hungry, defecating baby, who will grow up and develop and teach and heal and suffer, die and rise…in order to be close to us with a closeness that is never, ever removed. God’s closeness does not come and go. We may come and go but God doesn’t. God never withdraws from us.
Excerpts from Abbot Damian's Homily for Christmas Midnight Mass.