No One Will Take Your Joy Away, Third Sunday after the Easter Octave (EF), May 7, 2017

Fr. Roger J. Landry
St. Agnes Church, Manhattan
Third Sunday after the Easter Octave
May 7, 2017
1 Pet 2:11-19, Jn 16:16-22

 

To listen to an audio recording of today’s homily, please click below: 

 

The following text guided the homily: 

  • At the end of today’s Gospel, Jesus says something extraordinary about the consequences of his resurrection in the life of believers. The passage is taken from St. John’s Account of Jesus’ Last Supper discourse to the apostles. Jesus is describing how he is going to be ripped away for a while in his passion and death and how they will weep and mourn while the members of the Sanhedrin, Annas and Caiphas, Herod and Pilate, Barabbas and the mob, the devil and his fallen angels will rejoice, but he says that that grieving will be just a temporary anguish, like the labor of a woman giving birth. When Jesus rises and returns, when he sees them and us, again, he says, “Your hearts will rejoice and no one will take your joy away from you.”
  • The joy of Easter is something that no one is ever supposed to take away. Easter joy is not meant to be an ephemeral experience on Easter Sunday or one that lasts for an octave or even a 50-day period. It’s not something, to paraphrase St. Paul from today’s first reading, that’s contingent on who is king or governor or president, or what community we live in, or whether we’re slave or free, or suffering or in good health. It’s not conditioned by the Dow Jones Industrial Average, or who’s advancing in the playoffs, or what we had for breakfast. Truth incarnate is pretty emphatic about the impact Easter is supposed to give us: “Your hearts will rejoice,” he says, “and no one will take your joy away from you.”
  • The Church proclaims this joy at Easter. “Haec dies quam fecit Dominus: exultemus and laetemur in ea,” we sing in the Gradual on Easter Sunday: “This is the day the Lord has made. Let us rejoice and be glad!” In the Exultet that begin the Easter Vigil, we proclaim, “Laetetur et mater Ecclesia…,” “Rejoice, let Mother Church rejoice, arrayed with the lightning of [Jesus’ risen] glory, let this holy building shake with joy, filled with the mighty voices of the peoples.” We proclaim this joy in our hymns: “O Let us swell the joyful strain,” “Raise your joys and triumphs high,” “Regina Caeli, laetare,” “Rejoice, Heavenly Queen!” Not only the entire Easter season but the whole of Christian life is meant to be an Ode to Joy given to God for what Easter is means. Jesus came into the world, took on our nature, lived among us, preached, suffered, died, rose, ascended and sent the Holy Spirit so that, as he said earlier on Holy Thursday in St. John’s Gospel, “my joy may be in you and your joy be complete!” And no one, he says, can rob that joy from us. The only one who can eradicate that gift is ourselves, if we refuse to live in the joy of Easter or fritter or toss that joy away.
  • Perhaps the greatest scandal in the Church, but certainly one of the biggest pastoral problems, is that so many Catholics — including, sadly, not a few bishops, priests, religious and consecrated, Sunday and daily Mass-goers — simply do not radiate joy. Yesterday I led a small Marian pilgrimage to the Shrine of Our Lady of Czestochowa in Doylestown, Pennsylvania. After praying the 20 decades of the Rosary before evocative statues in the beautiful Rosary walk, we entered the main Church to finish by praying the Litany of Our Lady. When I entered, I was surprised that it was apparently empty, which pleased me that we would be able to pray the brief Litany out loud. We went up to the front and knelt and began to pray, softly and devoutly. Immediately a woman shouted across the huge shrine from a hidden corner in the front pews on the left: “Quiet!” I looked over and saw a woman in the shadows reading a book with her shoeless feet on the pew. We softened a little out of courtesy, but kept praying. She screamed again and we just kept going. I thought for a moment about going over to her and asking, in the form of a gentle fraternal correction, “Does our praise of the Blessed Mother, in this beautiful shrine dedicated to her, offend you? Do you think it annoys her, or her Son or St. Joseph, as much as it seems to anger you?” Rather than rejoicing at others’, including a priest’s and young peoples’ Marian piety, she erupted. She treated the shrine as if it were her own library or home, but refused any hospitality.
  • Sadly, we’ve all met people like her. Pope Francis wrote in his exhortation on the Joy of the Gospel, “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter,” who live as if they always have “just come back from a funeral,” whose lives seem devoid of the joy Jesus came into this world to give us as a permanent reality. Sometimes whole parishes have seemingly lost this characteristically Christian joy. They don’t behave as if they believe they’re going up to the altar of God to the God who rejuvenates them in joy. They don’t seem to want to live, even at Mass, the words of our Introit today, “Iubilate Deo, omnis terra,” “Shout joyfully to God, all you on earth; sing of his glorious name; give him glorious praise.” They don’t act on St. Paul’s words to the Christians in Philippi and Thessalonika, when he commanded, “Rejoice in the Lord always. … This is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus” (Phil 4:4; 1 Thess 5:16-18). St. Madeleine Sophie Barat, the 19th Century French foundress of the Society of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, once said, “If the world saw our happiness, it would, out of sheer envy, invade our churches, houses and retreats.” One of the reasons why there’s an urgent need for the new evangelization today is because when people do enter our Churches, Christian houses and retreat centers, instead of people bursting with the joy flowing from Jesus’ brimming heart, they find the “frozen chosen,” or, worse, the fulminating faithful, or the depressing disciples, and or the apathetic apostles. That’s not what Jesus entered our world, died and rose to form us to be. If we don’t live with joy, if we are not people of joy, we risk making the good news seem like a crock, a lie.
  • So how do we respond to the grace of Easter to live with a joy that cannot be stolen? Cardinal Timothy Dolan, when he was my rector at the North American College in Rome during the late 1990s, gave us a tremendous rector’s conference on joy that I still remember more than 20 years later. To maintain and grow our joy, he said, we need to do four things and avoid four things, we need to recognize and go to the fonts of joy and then be aware of the ways by which our joy is dissipated. Let’s examine what this joyful disciple, now our Archbishop, teaches us.
  • The first source of joy, he says, is God himself. Joy is a gift from God, a fruit of the Holy Spirit, dwelling within us in sanctifying grace. God gives us his joy when he gives us himself. Second, joy comes from the conviction that God loves us, that he gave his Son to save us, that he walks at our side always interceding for us. “If God is with us,” St. Paul asked the Romans, “Who can be against us? If God didn’t even spare his own Son but handed him over for us all, will he not give us everything else besides?” Third, joy comes from a trust and hope in divine providence, that everything works out for the good for those who love God. This is what we see in the first disciples after the resurrection, when they were threatened by the same people who had crucified Jesus: Jesus’ resurrection gave them courage and joy in the midst of persecution. If we have the same trust in God’s providence, the modern Sanhedrins and persecutors, sufferings and setbacks, won’t be able to diminish our joy either. And fourth, the future Cardinal said, joy comes from prayer, that we can approach God with anything we need, that he listens to us as a loving Father and always gives himself in response. Among the causes of our joy is that we can God in prayer to increase our joy and make it complete.
  • Cardinal Dolan also focused on the things that can banish joy from our hearts, what St Paul describes today in the Epistle as “the worldly desires that wage war against the soul.” While no one else can take our joy from us, these are the ways we can voluntarily waste it away. The first thing is self-pity, when we — redeemed by Jesus Christ, given all the means of holiness, and a Father who would do anything to save us — can begin to feel bad for ourselves, normally because something far less important than God didn’t go the way we hoped. The second is worrying, when we allow ourselves to be eaten alive by preoccupations, as if God isn’t greater or in charge. Jesus told us in the Gospel not to worry even about what we are to eat, drink wear or sleep, and if he’s saying not to worry about our most basic needs he’s saying them about all of the other thing we don’t need but simply desire. Third, we lose our joy when we place our happiness in anything or anyone else other than God: in acclaim, advancement, promotion, recognition, fame, prestige, power, the friendship or love of another creature or any other worldly things. Even if we were to attain what we’re seeking and experience pleasure as a result, that pleasure won’t last and sustain. Because pleasure and joy our different, as our contentment and happiness. As CS Lewis once astutely said, “I doubt whether anyone who has tasted joy would ever, if both were in his power, exchange it for all the pleasure in the world.” And lastly, we squander our joy through complaining. Rather than focusing on the treasure we have in God, we focus on all the other things that we do not have and, basically, do not think we can be happy without. And we begin to complain about everything, including the menu at the Last Supper. We become like the Jews in the desert, still complaining after God’s miraculous liberation, his separating the Red Sea in two, his miraculous feeding with manna from heaven each morning, quails each night, water from a rock, his giving a column of fire to illumine the night and so much more. Rather than count our blessings, we forget them and just enumerate and covet what others have as if it’s more important than what we do. In short, to maintain our joy, we need to focus on God’s indwelling, his love for us personally, his providential care, his listening to our prayers, and battle against the self-pity, worrying, complaining and setting our hearts on earthly treasures that can never produce the joy for which our hearts have been made.
  • But I’d like to go a little more deeply. I think the reason why many of us do not live the faith overflowing with joy is because we’re not accustomed to looking at Jesus full of joy. We don’t picture him smiling and lovingly affirming us and others. We don’t see him with an infectious happiness that could get Peter, Andrew, James and John to leave their boats immediately, to entice Matthew from his tax tables without hesitation, to have vast crowds come to listen to him for hours. Instead, we often picture his normal state to be overturning the money changers’ tables in the Temple precincts and driving animals out with a whip, or castigating the hypocritical scribes and Pharisees as whitewashed tombs, or telling us that we cannot be his follower unless we pick up our Cross every day, die to ourselves and everything that’s good about life and follow him to crucifixion. We don’t interpret everything he does, from his first words to repent and believe, to everything that comes later, as a means to get us to overcome “the worldly desires that wage war against the soul” and receive from him the foundational pillars of lasting joy. That’s why it’s so important for us to focus on Jesus’ joy if we’re ever going to live in his joyful image.
  • In the history of the Church, there’s no better document to help us to do that, in my opinion, than Blessed Pope Paul VI’s 1975 apostolic exhortation Gaudete in Domino, “Rejoice in the Lord,” released 42 years ago this Tuesday. In it he beautifully described Jesus’ joy, the joy he came to give us to the full. “In His humanity,” Pope Paul wrote, “Jesus experienced our joys. He has manifestly known, appreciated, and celebrated a whole range of human joys, those simple daily joys within the reach of everyone. … He admires the birds of heaven, the lilies of the field. He immediately grasps God’s attitude towards creation at the dawn of history. He willingly extols the joy of the sower and the harvester, the joy of the man who finds a hidden treasure, the joy of the shepherd who recovers his sheep or of the woman who finds her lost coin, the joy of those invited to the feast, the joy of a marriage celebration, the joy of the father who embraces his son returning from a prodigal life, and the joy of the woman who has just brought her child into the world. For Jesus, these joys are real because for Him they are the signs of the spiritual joys of the kingdom of God: the joy of people who enter this kingdom return there or work there, the joy of the Father who welcomes them. … And He did not rest until ‘to the poor he proclaimed the good news of salvation…and to those in sorrow, joy.’ … For the Christian as for Jesus,” Pope Paul wrote, “it is a question of living, in thanksgiving to the Father, the human joys, that the Creator gives him.” But he also said that Jesus’ joy isn’t like eating cotton candy at Coney Island. Jesus’ joy, rather, has it’s roots in the form of a cross. It’s “demanding.” It begins with the Beatitudes. Jesus blesses the poor, the mourning, the hungry, the persecuted, promising us the joy that comes from union with God in each of these circumstances. Jesus permit these things, Paul saysto confirm us “in an ineradicable joy. … Neither trials nor sufferings have been eliminated from this world, but they take on a new meaning in the certainty of sharing in the redemption wrought by the Lord and of sharing in His glory. This is why the Christian, though subject to the difficulties of human life, is not reduced to groping for the way; nor does he see in death the end of his hopes. As in fact the prophet foretold: ‘The people that walked in darkness has seen a great light; on those who live in a land of deep shadow a light has shone. You have made their gladness greater, you have made their joy increase.’ … In the joyful announcement of the resurrection, even man’s suffering finds itself transformed, while the fullness of joy springs from the victory of the Crucified, from His pierced heart and His glorified body.”
  • The one who shows us how to receive God’s gift of joy to its fullness and let our whole lives develop in accordance with it is the woman we celebrate in a special way during the month of May and ought to turn to even more as we approach the centenary of her apparitions in Fatima next Saturday. The first words of the Angel to her in the Annunciation were “Chairete,” “Rejoice,” and Mary rejoiced in the Lord always, seeing that this was God’s will for her. In Gaudete in Domino, Paul VI wrote beautifully about Mary’s joy, saying, “The Virgin Mary, full of grace, … manifests her joy before her cousin Elizabeth who celebrates her faith: ‘My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior…henceforth all generations will call me blessed.’ She has grasped, better than all other creatures, that God accomplishes wonderful things: his name is holy, he shows his mercy, he raises up the humble, he is faithful to His promises. Not that the apparent course of her life in any way departs from the ordinary, but she meditates on the least signs of God, pondering them in her heart. Not that she is in any way spared sufferings: she stands, the mother of sorrows, at the foot of the cross, associated in an eminent way with the sacrifice of [her Son,] the innocent Servant. But she is also open in an unlimited degree to the joy of the resurrection; and she is also taken up, body and soul, into the glory of heaven. … With Christ, she sums up in herself all joys; she lives the perfect joy promised to the Church…. And it is with good reason that her children on earth, turning to her who is the mother of hope and of grace, invoke her as the cause of their joy, Causa nostrae laetitiae.”
  • We turn to her, as we celebrate this Mass, asking her to intercede for us that as we go up to the altar of God, he may make us ever young again in the joy that never expires, that we and the whole earth may jubilantly cry out for today is the day made by the Lord, that we may receive her Son’s gift of Easter joy and let it transform us so that our existence may like hers become a Magnificat, and so that, after this exile accompanied by her Son and filled with the fruit of the Holy Spirit, we may come to the place with her and all the saints where we hope to rejoice forever. Today as we prepare to receive the blessed fruit of her immaculate womb, let us ask her help so that we may hear him say to us, both, “I have come so that my own joy may be in you and your joy will be complete,” as well as, “I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” This is our faith. This is the faith of the Church. Let us rejoice in it with Mary, St. Agnes, each other, and all the saints! Praised be Jesus Christ!

The readings for today’s Mass were:

A reading from the First Epistle of St. Peter
Beloved, I urge you as aliens and sojourners to keep away from worldly desires that wage war against the soul. Maintain good conduct among the Gentiles, so that if they speak of you as evildoers, they may observe your good works and glorify God on the day of visitation. Be subject to every human institution for the Lord’s sake, whether it be to the king as supreme or to governors as sent by him for the punishment of evildoers and the approval of those who do good. For it is the will of God that by doing good you may silence the ignorance of foolish people. Be free, yet without using freedom as a pretext for evil, but as slaves of God. Give honor to all, love the community, fear God, honor the king. Slaves, be subject to your masters with all reverence, not only to those who are good and equitable but also to those who are perverse. For whenever anyone bears the pain of unjust suffering because of consciousness of God, that is a grace.

The continuation of the Gospel according to St. John
Jesus said to the Apostles, “A little while and you will no longer see me, and again a little while later and you will see me.” So some of his disciples said to one another, “What does this mean that he is saying to us, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” So they said, “What is this ‘little while’ [of which he speaks]? We do not know what he means.” Jesus knew that they wanted to ask him, so he said to them, “Are you discussing with one another what I said, ‘A little while and you will not see me, and again a little while and you will see me’? Amen, amen, I say to you, you will weep and mourn, while the world rejoices; you will grieve, but your grief will become joy. When a woman is in labor, she is in anguish because her hour has arrived; but when she has given birth to a child, she no longer remembers the pain because of her joy that a child has been born into the world. So you also are now in anguish. But I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.