“The child in my womb lept for joy!
FATHER CANTALAMESSA’S THIRD AND FINAL 2012 ADVENT HOMILY TO THE VATICAN CURIA
We dedicate this final Advent meditation to the third great theme of the year: Evangelization. The Pope has invited the Church to make this year the occasion for rediscovering “the joy of encountering Christ”, the joy of being Christians. Echoing this call, I will speak about how to evangelize through joy. I shall do so while remaining as close as possible to the liturgical season at hand, so that it may also serve as a preparation for Christmas.
1. Eschatological exultation
In the “infancy narratives”, Luke, moved by the Holy Spirit, succeeded not only in presenting us with the main events and persons surrounding the Savior’s infancy but also in recreating the atmosphere and mood wherein these events unfolded. One of the elements of this spiritual world that shines forth most clearly is joy. Christian piety did not err in calling the events of Jesus’ childhood “the joyful mysteries”.
To Zachariah, the angel promised “joy and gladness” and that many would “rejoice” at the birth of his son (Lk 1:14). Here, the evangelist employs a Greek word that, from this moment on, shall reemerge on the lips of various figures as a kind of continually recurring note. It is the word agallìasis, which indicates “eschatological exultation over the bursting forth of messianic times”. At Mary’s greeting, the babe in Elizabeth’s womb “leaped for joy” (Lk 1:44) and thereby foretold the “friend of the bridegroom’s” joy at the presence of the bridegroom (cf. Jn 3:29). This note reaches its first highpoint in Mary’s cry: “My spirit rejoices (egallìasen) in God!” (Lk 1:47). It emanates from the quiet joy shared among the friends and relatives who gather about the cradle of the Precursor (cf. Lk 1:58), and it finally explodes with all its force at the birth of Christ, in the angel’s announcement to the shepherds: “I bring you tidings of great joy!” (Lk 2:10).
We are not dealing with a few scattered hints of gladness, but rather with a rush of calm and profound joy that runs through the infancy narratives from beginning to end. It is expressed in a thousand different ways: in Mary’s haste as she arises to go to Elizabeth and in the shepherds’ swiftness to go and see the Child, and in the humble, customary acts of joy such as visits, best wishes, greetings, congratulations and gifts. But this joy is expressed above all in the protagonists’ wonder and heartfelt gratitude: “God has visited His people! […] He has remembered His holy covenant!” That for which many had prayed – that God would remember his promises – had now taken place! The persons portrayed in the infancy narratives seem to move and speak within the dream-like atmosphere of which Psalm 126 sings:
“When the Lord brought back the captives of Sion,
we were like those who dream.
Then our mouth was filled with laughter,
And our tongue with shouts of joy;
Then they said among the nations,
‘The Lord has done great things for them’.
The Lord has done great things for us;
we were filled with joy”.
Mary makes the final phrase of this Psalm her own, when she exclaims: “The Almighty has done great things for me!” We find ourselves before the most pure example of the Spirit’s “sober inebriation”. Theirs is a true spiritual “inebriation”, but it is “sober”. They do not exalt themselves; they are not concerned about having a more or less important place in the Kingdom of God now begun. They are not even concerned about seeing its end. Indeed, Simeon says that the Lord can let him depart in peace, that he can let him disappear. What counts is that the work of God continues; it doesn’t matter whether this happens with or without them.
2. From liturgy to life
Now let us move from the Bible and the liturgy to life. This is always the goal of God’s Word. The evangelist Luke’s intention is not only to narrate the events but also to involve the hearers, and to sweep them along like the shepherds in a joyous procession towards Bethlehem. “Anyone who reads these lines”, a modern exegete comments, “is called to share in their rejoicing; only the concelebrating community of believers in Christ, and of his faithful disciples, can be up to these texts”[i].
This explains why the infancy narratives have so little to say to those who seek in them only history, and why instead they have so much to say to those who also seek in them history’s meaning, as the Holy Father does in his latest book on Jesus. Many events have happened that are not “historical” in the fullest sense of the word, since they have left no mark on history – they have had no lasting effect. The events surrounding the birth of Jesus, on the other hand, are historical facts in the very strongest sense, for not only have they occurred, but they have also impacted the history of the world – and in a most decisive way.
Let us return to the theme of joy. Where does happiness come from? The ultimate source of joy is God, the Trinity. But we are in time, whereas God is in eternity. How can joy flow between two so distant points? Actually, if we delve more deeply into the Bible, we discover that the immediate origin of joy is in time: it is God’s action in history. God who acts! A divine action, at the point where it “falls” upon history, causes a vibration and a wave of joy that resounds for generations; indeed, when dealing with actions wrought by Revelation, it resounds forever.
God’s action is always a miracle that fills heaven and earth with wonder: “Sing for joy, O heavens, for the Lord has done it” – exclaims the prophet – “shout O depths of the earth!” (Is 44:23; 49:13). The joy breaking forth from Mary’s heart, and from the hearts of the other witnesses of the beginnings of salvation, is wholly based on this: God has come to the help of Israel! God has done it! He has done great things!
How can this joy in God’s action reach the Church today, infecting her with the same jubilant gladness? First, it reaches her by way of remembrance, in the sense that the Church “remembers” the marvelous works God has accomplished on her behalf. The Church is invited to make her own the Virgin’s words: “The Almighty has done great things for me”. The Magnificat is the canticle which Mary first intoned – as the coryphaeus preceding the chorus – and has left to the Church, that its singing might be prolonged through the centuries. Truly the Lord has done great things for the Church over these last twenty centuries!
In a certain sense, we have greater reason for rejoicing than Zachariah, Simeon, the shepherds and the early Church in general. She went forth “bearing the seed for sowing”, as Psalm 126 says. She had received God’s promises: “I am with you!” and his commands: “Go out to all the world!” But we have seen these fulfilled. The seed has grown, the tree of the Kingdom has become immense. The Church today is like the sower who “returns with shouts of joy, bearing his sheaves”.
How many graces, how many saints, what great wisdom of doctrine and wealth of institutions, and what salvation has been wrought in her and through her! Which of Christ’s words has not been perfectly fulfilled? This word of his has been certainly fulfilled: “In the world you will have tribulation” (Jn 16:33); but so has his other word: “The powers of death shall not prevail against it” (Mt 16:18).
How rightly may the Church make her own the wonder of ancient Sion, and say before the innumerable multitude of her children: “Who has borne me these? I was bereaved and barren, but who has brought up these?” (Is 49:21) Who, looking back across the centuries with the eyes of faith, would fail to see perfectly fulfilled in the Church the prophetic words addressed to the new Jerusalem rebuilt after her exile: “Lift up your eyes round about, and see; they all gather together, they come to you; your sons shall come from afar […] Your gates shall be open continually; that men may bring to you the wealth of the nations” (Is 60:4.11).
How many times over the course of these last twenty centuries has the Church had to enlarge the “space of her tent”; that is, her capacity to receive and to allow the human and cultural wealth of diverse peoples to enter in! – even if this has not always happened promptly and without resistance. To us – the children of the Church who are nourished “from the abundance of her breasts” – the prophet’s invitation is addressed: Rejoice and be glad for her, “shine with joy for her” after having mourned over her (cf. Is 66:10-11).
Joy in God’s action therefore reaches believers today by way of remembrance, for we see the great things the Lord has done for us in the past. But it also reaches us in another and no less important way: by way of presence, for we find that even now, in the present, God is acting in our midst. He is acting in the Church.
If the Church today wishes to rediscover paths of courage and joy amid all the anxieties and tribulations that beset her, she must open her eyes to all that God is accomplishing in her this very day. The finger of God, i.e. the Holy Spirit, is still writing in the Church and in souls, and he is writing marvelous stories of holiness, such that one day – when all the negativity and sin have vanished into thin air – perhaps future generations shall look upon our age with wonder and with holy envy. In saying this, are we closing our eyes to the many evils that afflict the Church and to the betrayal of so many of her ministers? No, but at a time when the world and its media put nothing before us regarding the Church except these things, it is good every now and then to lift one’s gaze and look upon her luminous side, her sanctity.
In every age – even in our own – the Spirit says to the Church as he said in the time of Deutero-Isaiah: “From this time forth I make you hear new things, hidden things which you have not known. They are created now, not long ago” (Is 48:6-7). Is not the powerful breath of the Spirit a “new and hidden thing”? The Spirit, who reinvigorates the People of God and inspires in its midst charisms of every kind, ordinary and extraordinary? The love for God’s Word? The active participation of the laity in the life of the Church and the work of evangelization? The constant commitment of the Magisterium, and of so many organizations that serve the poor and the suffering? The longing to mend the broken unity of the Body of Christ? What era in the Church’s history has known a succession of such learned and holy Supreme Pontiffs as has the past century and a half? Or so many martyrs for the faith?
3. A different relationship between joy and pain
Let us move from the ecclesial to the existential and personal plain. Some years ago, there was a campaign being promoted by the so-called militant atheists. Their publicity slogan, which was affixed to London’s public transport, read: “There’s probably no God. Now stop worrying and enjoy your life.” The most insidious element of this slogan isn’t the premise “There is no God” (which, of course, has yet to be proven) but the conclusion: “Enjoy your life!” For the underlying message is that faith in God prevents us from enjoying life. Faith, it claims, is the enemy of joy. And without it the world would be a happier place! We need to answer this insinuation, which keeps so many people away from the faith, especially young people.
Jesus sparked a revolution in joy whose scope would be difficult to overstate, and which can be of great help to us in evangelization. This is a thought I believe I’ve already expressed from this very seat, but the subject at hand requires it. There is a universal human experience: in this life, pleasure and pain follow one another with the same regularity with which a trough and a void follow a wave’s rising in the sea, sucking the shipwreck under. “From amid the wellspring of delights,” the pagan poet Lucretius wrote, “bubbles some drop of bitter to torment from among the very flowers”[ii]. Drug use, sex abuse and homicidal violence all provide a momentary thrill of pleasure, but they lead to the moral and often physical breakdown of the person.
Christ reversed the relationship between pleasure and pain. “For the joy that was set before him [he] endured the cross” (Heb 12:2). No longer would pleasure end in suffering, but suffering would lead to life and joy. It is not merely a matter of a different ordering of the two things. It is joy that has the last word, not suffering, and it is a joy that shall last forever. “Christ being raised from the dead will never die again; death no longer has dominion over him” (Rom 6:9). The Cross ends with Good Friday. The bliss and glory of the Resurrection continue for all eternity.
This new relationship between suffering and pleasure is also reflected in the Bible’s way of marking time. According to human reckoning, the day begins in the morning and ends at night. For the Bible, however, it begins with the night and ends with the day: “And there was evening and there was morning, one day”, the account of creation says (Gen 1: 5). For the liturgy as well, a solemnity begins with vespers of the vigil. What does this mean? It means that, without God, life is a day that ends in night. With God, it is a night (sometimes a “dark night”), but it ends with the day, a day that knows no sunset.
However, we should anticipate an obvious objection: Is joy, then, only for after death? For Christians, is this life nothing more than a “vale of tears”? It’s quite the contrary, for in this life no one experiences true joy as much as true believers do. It has been said of one of the saints that, one day, he cried out to God: “Enough joy! My heart cannot contain any more”. Believers, the Apostle says, are spe gaudentes; they rejoice in hope (Rom 12:12), which doesn’t mean that they only “hope to be happy” (i.e. in the life beyond) but that they are “happy in hope”; i.e. already happy now, thanks to hope.
Christian joy is interior. It doesn’t come from without but from within – like certain alpine lakes which are fed not from a river that flows from outside, but from a spring of water welling up from their very foundations. It comes from God’s mysterious and present action in the human heart through grace. It can cause us to abound with joy in our sufferings (cf. 2 Cor 7: 4). It is the “fruit of the Spirit” (Gal 5: 22, Rom 14:17) and is expressed in peace of heart, fullness of meaning, the ability to love and to be loved, and above all in hope, without which there can be no joy.
In 1972, at the suggestion of Herbert von Karajan, the Council of Europe adopted the Ode to Joy, which concludes Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, as the official anthem of the European Union. Beethoven’s Ode is certainly one of the highpoints in world music; however, the joy of which it sings is longed for, not realized. It is a cry that arises from the human heart, rather than a response.
In Schiller’s Ode, which inspired the anthem’s text, we read these disturbing words: “Whoever has had the great fortune to be a friend’s friend, whoever has won the love of a devoted wife, add his to our jubilation! And whoever was never able to, must creep tearfully away from this circle”. As we can see, the joy that men “drink from nature’s breasts” isn’t for everyone, but only for a privileged few.
We are very far indeed from the language of Jesus, who says: “Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest” (Mt 11:28). The true Christian ode to joy is Mary’s Magnificat. It speaks of an exultation (agallìasis) of the spirit over what God has done in her, and what he continues to do for all, especially for the humble and hungry of the earth.
4. Bearing witness to joy
This is that joy to which we must bear witness. For what the world seeks is joy. “To hear this word but mentioned,” writes St. Augustine, “all stand aright and look to your hands, to see whether you might be able to offer something to them in their want”[iii]. We all desire happiness. This is what we all have in common, good and bad alike. Whoever is good, is good for the sake of being happy; and whoever is bad would not be so, if he did not hope to be happy thereby[iv]. We would not love joy, unless in some mysterious way we had some knowledge of it. For, had we not known it – had we not been made for it – we would not love it[v]. This longing for joy is the space in the human heart that is naturally open to receive “glad tidings”.
When the world comes knocking at the Church’s doors – even when it does so violently and in anger – it does so because it is looking for joy. Young people especially seek joy. The world around them is sad. Sadness, as it were, grips us by the throat, at Christmas more than other times of the year. This sadness is not caused by any lack of material goods, for it is far more prevalent in wealthy countries than in those that are poor.
In Isaiah we read these words addressed to the People of God: “Your brethren who hate you and cast you out for my name’s sake have said, ‘Let the Lord be glorified, that we may see your joy!’” (Is 66:5). The same challenge is being silently addressed to the People of God today. For a melancholic and timorous Church wouldn’t be up to its task; it wouldn’t be able to respond to the expectations of humanity and especially to young people.
Joy is the only sign that even unbelievers are able to understand, and it can place them in serious crisis (far more that reproach and argumentation). The most beautiful testimony a bride can give her husband is a face radiant with joy, because that alone tells him that he has filled her life with happiness. This is also the most beautiful witness the Church can give to her divine Bridegroom.
In addressing his famous invitation to joy to the Christians in Philippi, which sets the tone for the third week of Advent (“Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice!”) St. Paul explains how we too can bear witness in practice to this joy: “Let all men know your forbearance” (Phil 4:4-5). The word “forbearance” translates a Greek word (epieikès), which indicates a whole host of attitudes including mercy, forgiveness and the ability to know how to relent and not to be stubborn (it is the same word from which the word epikeia is derived, which is used in law!).
Christians bear witness to joy, then, when they put these dispositions into practice; when, avoiding any unnecessary bitterness and resentment in dialogue with the world and with one another, they radiate confidence, and in so doing imitate God who also makes his rain to fall on the unjust. Generally, whoever is happy isn’t bitter. He doesn’t feel the need to pin everything down. He knows how to put things into perspective, because he knows something much greater. In his Apostolic Exhortation on joy, written during the final years of his pontificate, Paul VI speaks of a “positive outlook on people and things, the fruit of an enlightened human spirit and of the Holy Spirit”[vi].
Even within the Church, there is a vital need to bear witness to joy. St. Paul said of himself and of the other apostles: “Not that we lord it over your faith; we work with you for your joy” (2 Cor 1:24). What a splendid definition of the task of the shepherds of the Church! Collaborators in joy: those who instill security in the sheep of Christ’s flock; the valiant captains who, with only a serene gaze, hearten the soldiers committed to the fight.
Amid the trials and calamities that afflict the Church, particularly in some parts of the world, pastors can repeat again today those words which Nehemiah addressed one day to the people of Israel, who were left heartbroken and in tears after their exile: “Do not mourn or weep […] for the joy of the Lord is your strength!” (Neh 8:9-10).
Holy Father, Venerable Fathers, brothers and sisters, may the joy of the Lord truly be our strength, and the strength of the Church. Merry Christmas!
[Translation by Diane Montagna]
[i] H. Schürmann, Das Lukas Evangelium, Herder Freiburg, 1969 (Il Vangelo di Luca, I, Paideia, Brescia 1983, p. 172.)
[ii] Lucretius, De rerum natura, IV, 1129 ff.
[iii] Augustine, De ordine, I, 8, 24.
[iv] Cf. Id., Sermons 150, 3, 4 (PL 38, 809).
[v] Cf. Id., Confessions, X, 20.
[vi] Paul VI, Gaudete in Domino, in “L’Osservatore Romano”, 17 May 1975.