The Joy of Life in Christ
Sunday, May 1, 2022 (Third Sunday of the Easter Season)
by Fr. David M. Knight
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What does or could take the joy out of my life? Have I ever sat down and thought about what I need for a joyful life? Is joy just an emotion, or do I have any free choice about what I will find joy in? How does Jesus fit into this? Does he give or promise joy? Here or just hereafter?
How can the Entrance Antiphon call the whole world to “cry out to God with joy” and “praise the glory of his name” if joy is not available to everyone?
The Opening Prayer gives us some reasons for joy that do not depend on any circumstances beyond our control: “We look forward with hope to our resurrection.” Even death or the prospect of death cannot take away our joy. “You have made us your sons and daughters.” That is what we are right now; we have God as our Father; we share in his own divine, eternal, infinitely happy life. Felt or not, that is a treasure to rejoice in. And if we have messed up our lives in any way, Jesus offers to save us from that: “You have restored the joy of our youth.”
But joy is the “fruit of the Holy Spirit.”1 It depends on believing that things are as Jesus says they are and on trying to act accordingly. We who were “once in darkness” have joy now because we have “listened to God’s Word” and “followed” Jesus “as he rose from the tomb.” We ask God to “strengthen your Church to answer your call,” so that we can “rise” out of darkness ourselves and “come forth into the light of day.” Joy comes from responding.
1 See Galatians 5:22.
Joy in persecution:
In Acts 5: 27-41 the high priest charged the apostles with disobedience: “We gave you strict orders not to teach in this name [of Jesus], yet here you have filled Jerusalem with your teaching.” To this “Peter and the apostles answered, ‘We must obey God rather than any human authority.’”
After that the high priest, with the council and elders of Israel “called in the apostles, had them flogged, ordered them [again] not to speak in the name of Jesus, and let them go.”
“As they left the council,” Acts continues, “they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.”
Why would anyone “rejoice” in suffering?
Notice that it was not the suffering they were rejoicing in, but “that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name.” The fact that they risked and accepted suffering for Jesus, and found themselves able to rejoice in it, was one of the “signs and wonders” that accompanied the early preaching of the Gospel. It was something that could not be explained without the grace of divine faith, hope and love. And so it was an experience (for the apostles) and an expression (to others) of the reality of the divine life of God present within them. It was a sign of “the Holy Spirit whom God has given to those who obey him.”
That was — and still is — something to rejoice in. If we want to know and experience our union with God and the Holy Spirit in grace, the clearest way is to persevere in the actions that express faith, hope and love when this is difficult.
We are not often beaten up or thrown into jail for bearing witness to the Gospel. But it does happen, all over the world and in the United States, to people who disobey unjust laws or engage in “civil disobedience” to protest the immoral actions of governments. In our country SCO’s can still be imprisoned for “selective conscientious objection,” not to all war, but to some particular war as being contrary to the “just war theory.” In December, 1970 the Supreme Court heard and refused to accept the argument that this is a denial of religious freedom to Catholics, whose Church insists on the obligation to follow one’s conscience in determining whether participation in a particular war is justified and moral or not. All those in the military who are commanded to engage in actions their conscience condemns as immoral must be willing to face prison if they say with the apostles, “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”2
This particular experience of being “considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name” is not offered to everyone. But we are all challenged and invited to experience the reality of divine life in our hearts every time we feel indifferent toward prayer, aversion for Mass, or just disgust with the whole idea of being Catholic, Christian, or participating in “organized religion.”
The abuse of authority in the Church, the arrogance or legalistic rigidity of some priests, the bad example of other Catholics, or the low level of pastoral care we might find in our own parish are not authentic arguments against the faith. Jesus knew this would happen when he made us free and decided to continue his mission through human beings. And he warned us against it:
Scandals are bound to come, but woe to the one by whom the stumbling block comes!3
Scandals make perseverance harder, but not illogical. Likewise, “desolation” or dryness in prayer, is a normal experience in the spiritual life, but we are experiencing grace most reliably, not when we feel that “joy, joy, joy, joy, deep in my heart,” but when we don’t and keep praying anyway. That is authentic “joy in the Spirit.”
“Feed my sheep”
John 21: 1-9 gives us the “great commandment” of all pastoral ministry: “If you love me, feed my sheep!”
To do this consistently and faithfully in the Church today or in any age, we have to be willing to take a prophetic stand against the “Pharisee party” who, as Jews, were the most stubborn opponents of Jesus, and later — as Christians — fought against St. Paul all his life. 4
The “Pharisee party” are those in the Church whose religious focus is on law-observance. They typically insist on following the letter of the law, without adaptation to circumstances, even when the literal observance of the rule will do damage to the flock.
The Catholic tradition against legalism is ancient and clear, and one of the most beautiful expressions of it was given in the 1930’s by Amleto Giovanni Cicognani, later Cardinal Secretary of State under Popes John XXIII and Paul VI:
…To apply the common rule will sometimes work injustice and defeat the intention of the law itself. In such cases it is bad to follow the law; it is good to set aside its letter and follow the dictates of justice and the common good .
The ability to do this well is a virtue taught in the Church for centuries under the name of epieikeia, which
does not interpret law… but rather the intent of the lawgiver…. It is the application of law in a particular case…. Such application of law is legal, that is, lawful, although it disagree with the strict letter of the law…. For what is equitable and good is the law of laws.
In Catholic tradition a law can even cease to exist before the machinery of repeal can function:
…The reasons and the purpose for which the law was made can change. Consequently, since a law is an ordinance in according with reason, it ought to be revoked if it becomes useless, harmful, or unreasonable. And if it has not actually been revoked, it is to be reasonably presumed to be revoked. For its purpose is the soul of law, and a law without a soul lapses, ceases to exist, dies.
This is the Catholic theology of law and the charter of prophetic witness. No minister can “feed the sheep” effectively without it. But the Pharisee party will always make it risky for prophets and ministers who believe “We must obey God rather than any human authority.”
“All glory and power….”
Revelation 5: 11-14 sings that Christ triumphed over death and reigns now, although his victory is still to be realized in our time-frame. “Worthy is the Lamb that was slaughtered to receive power and wealth and wisdom and might and honor and glory and blessing!” This, maintained in faith, is the ultimate ground and justification of our joy.
2See America magazine 1/29/07: “A Soldier’s Decision.” That article quotes auxiliary military bishop John Kaising as saying, “Once the commander-in-chief has called us to war, the time for conscientious objection is over.” In this Bishop Kaising was in disagreement with the apostles! 3Matthew 18: 6-7. 4See Acts 11:2, 14:1-2; 15:1, 5, 24; Galatians 1: 6-8; 2:1-16; 5: 11-15; 6:13. 5Amleto Cicognani, Canon Law, (Newman Press, 1934) pp 12-21 and 608-628, following St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologica II-II, Q. 120, art. 1.
Insight: Have I found joy though risking the disapproval of others because I was faithful to the truth and will of Jesus Christ ?Am I prophetically and pastorally free?
Initiative: Observe rules prophetically; that is, according to the Catholic theology of law.
Reflections brought to you by the Immersed in Christ Ministry