A few years ago, I was asked to be the master of ceremonies for a large Catholic gala. A few weeks before the event, we visited the venue to walk through the program. We also received a small version of the delicious meal that the guests would enjoy. As the event grew closer, I told some friends who were attending the event how great the meal would be. I had a small taste of the meal, so I knew that great things were in store for them.
St. Paul gives a command to the Christians at Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice.” (Phil. 4:4) These words are heard at Mass or when we read Scripture and they can simply roll off our backs and not be taken to heart. Without careful consideration, we can miss the radical nature of this command.
Paul is no rosy-eyed optimist telling the early Christians to cheer up. He endured tremendous sufferings for the Gospel, including imprisonment, stoning and shipwreck — just to a name a few. (2 Cor. 11:16) There are many reasons for Paul to not rejoice if we think about both the physical sufferings he endured as well as the emotional suffering he has experienced at the hands of his spiritual children. He was ridiculed and slandered and treated as a fool not only by outsiders, but also by the very people who said yes to following Jesus. (1 Cor. 4:6-16) Can he really mean that we should rejoice always?
Paul gives this command to the Thessalonians as well. (1 Thes. 5:16) We know that Paul wrote his letters for specific churches, but they were also circulated among wider communities. Therefore, his advice was both particular to the circumstances of these churches as well as to all churches.
Why is it so important for us to rejoice always?
Joy is a spiritual fruit of the Holy Spirit listed in the fifth chapter of Paul’s letter to the Galatians. The Catechism of the Catholic Church defines these fruits as “perfections the Holy Spirit forms in us as the first fruits of eternal glory.” Joy is given to us by the Holy Spirit as foretaste of the eternal joy we will experience in heaven. It is an appetizer of the great feast which awaits the saints in the kingdom to come.
The Christian life is not simply being immersed in this world; it involves keeping an eye on the world to come: “Your life is hidden with Christ in God.” (Col. 3:3) We have to keep in mind the inestimable joy God has prepared for us. In the midst of the struggles, disappointments and concerns of this world, it is easy for us to lose sight of our final destination. To combat these discouraging temptations, the fruit of joy is poured into our hearts at our baptism and strengthened at our confirmation. God pours these gifts upon us freely and gratuitously through his sacraments.
But these fruits need to be activated. We have the raw material of supernatural joy which would be impossible without this gift from God, but we need to give it life by exercising it. Thus, Paul gives the commandment to exercise joy to the early Christians. When you are tempted to sulk and stew in the problems of your life, reject it and rejoice! When your sinfulness and your imperfections seem overwhelming, go to confession and rejoice! When God seems distant and you feel forgotten or abandoned, make an act of faith that God is good and whatever suffering he permits you to endure is for your greater sanctification, and rejoice!
Joy demonstrates to others that we have found the pearl of great price and nothing can take this away from us. Read Paul’s magnificent eighth chapter of his letter to the Romans for a stark reminder that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Joy is the hallmark of a disciple. Pope Francis reminds us in Evangelii Gaudium that “the joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus … with Christ joy is constantly born anew.”
Joy is also perhaps the most attractive way to evangelize. We must be authentic and realistic of the challenges and demands of discipleship. Yet it is no less important for us to be joyful in the way we live our lives and witness to our faith. Pope John Paul II was such an attractive evangelist precisely because he loved to smile. St. Philip Neri likewise demonstrated the joy which filled his enlarged heart when he spoke of the love of Jesus.
Our efforts to unleash the Gospel in southeast Michigan is hard work. There are lots of disappointments and struggles that can dampen our spirits. Yet in the midst of our challenges, rejoice! We have been given an early taste of what God wants to give all of his children. As we play our part in winning the world back for Jesus, we should demonstrate the joy we have been given in the Holy Spirit — that all are invited to share at eternal gala, where we can scarcely comprehend how deeply God will fulfill the every desire of our hearts. Knowing what awaits us there, how can we not always rejoice?
The Latin motto for St. John Henry Cardinal Newman’s coat of arms was “cor ad cor loquitur.” In English, this translates to “heart speaks to heart.” Newman took these words from St. Francis de Sales and incorporated them into his own life of teaching. In his preaching and his teaching, Newman was not merely imparting some facts or information. Rather, he was sharing the deepest aspects of what he knew and believed with the listener. His heart was speaking to another’s heart. Here I hope to do something similar, sharing words that come from my heart and hopeful speak to yours: cor ad cor.