By Cardinal Justin Rigali
As we begin the month of May, it is appropriate to reflect once again on Mary, Mother of Jesus and our Mother. In this Easter season, let us reflect on her joy.
Characteristics of a Christian
We may say that every person, place or thing has certain characteristics. These are the aspects which help us to recognize who or what a person or thing is. In fact, we may even say that if a person or thing does not possess the required characteristics, we cannot recognize them for what they claim to be. For example, if someone claims to have the profile of a friend but lacks loyalty, a characteristic of friendship, we may say that we cannot recognize that person as a friend.
In this Easter season, we dwell in a special way on the aspect of light. The Service of Light begins the Easter Vigil and all those present receive their light from the Easter Candle, symbolizing Christ, the Light of the world. We are challenged, as Christ’s followers to be as a light to those we encounter, so that we may show forth what it means to be followers of Christ. As His followers, we are called to have certain characteristics helping us to be identified as faithful Christians. One of those characteristics is Christian joy. During the Easter season, we replace the Marian prayer that we call the Angelus with the Easter antiphon the Regina Coeli. We pray: “Queen of Heaven, Rejoice, Alleluia!” Let us take Mary as our model as we reflect on Christian joy, an indispensable characteristic of the followers of Jesus.
Christian joy is not unrealistic
In his Letter to the Philippians, Saint Paul exhorts the early Christians to joy. He writes: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” (Philippians 4:4). It is very important to note that Paul writes these words encouraging Christian joy while he is in prison, being persecuted for his faith in Christ. Christian joy is not an absence of hardship, nor is it an indulgence in “happy talk,” which helps us to act as if everything is always fine.
Christian joy is a deep-seated reality born of faith and the life of grace. Pope John Paul II spoke of this early in his Pontificate. He said: “The true worth of what a Christian does is determined by the active presence of God’s grace in him or her and in that person’s deeds. In a Christian’s heart, therefore, peace is inseparable from joy. When the joy that is in a Christian heart is poured out on others, it gives them hope and optimism; it spurs them to be generous in their daily toil and infects the entire society. My children, only if you have in you this spanine grace, which is joy and peace, will you be able to do anything useful for others” (Address, 10 April 1979).
Since we speak of Mary as being “full of grace,” she is also our model in joy. Using the explanation of John Paul II, we can see that being “full of grace” also means being “full of joy.”
Joy in times of affliction
All of us are, have been or will be visited with discouragement, sickness, misunderstanding, the loss of loved ones and disappointment. If we view these as also depriving us of our Christian joy, we will be very sad people indeed. Saint Cyprian (died A.D. 258) put these factors in proper context for the Christian. He wrote: “This is the difference between us and those who do not know God, they complain in adversity; but difficulties do not draw us away from virtue or from the true faith. On the contrary, our virtue and faith are reinforced in affliction” (De mortalitate, 13).
Where and how do we find our joy in the midst of the trials and difficulties of this life? We may say that we find it first through the comfort of God’s presence and secondly, through our knowledge that we are sharing in the Cross of Jesus. On the Third Sunday of Advent, known as Gaudete or “rejoicing” Sunday, in 2007, Pope Benedict XVI described the first source of Christian joy in adversity. He said: “Christian joy springs from this certainty: God is close, He is with me, He is with us, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as a friend and faithful spouse. And this joy endures, even in trials, in suffering itself. It does not remain only on the surface; it dwells in the depths of the person who entrusts himself to God and trusts in Him” (Angelus, 16 December 2007).
The second source of Christian joy in the midst of adversity is again described by Saint Paul: “I am overflowing with joy all the more because of our affliction” (2 Corinthians 7:4). Saint JoseMaría Escrivá commented on this passage in this way: “Is it not true that as soon as you cease to be afraid of the Cross, of what people call the cross, when you set your will to accept the will of God, then you find happiness, and all your worries, all your sufferings, physical or moral, pass away? Truly the Cross of Jesus is gentle and lovable. There, sorrows cease to count; there is only the joy of knowing that we are co-redeemers with Him” (The Way of the Cross, II).
Finally, a very practical recipe for Christian joy, even in this world, is given to us by Blessed Mother Teresa of Calcutta. She spent most of her life in contact with what we might call “misery” and “very sad situations,” yet she said: “We wait impatiently for paradise, where God is, but it is in our power to be in paradise even here on earth and from this moment. Being happy with God means loving like Him, helping like Him, giving like Him, serving like Him” (The Joy of Giving to Others, 1987, p. 143).
With Mary, we always have faith in the final victory
One of the elements that robs us of joy is our fear of the unknown. In the Gospels, when Mary expresses some doubt as to the message of the angel, once she is assured that this is the will of God for her, she accepts without hesitation and with a spirit of great faith: “May it be done to me according to your word” (Luke 1:38). This was the beginning for her of many joys but also many sorrows in fulfilling her role in the work of salvation.
Here are some of what we might call the human sorrows of Mary: the early doubts of Joseph, to whom she was engaged; the lack of a place in which to give birth to her child; the leaving of her native place; the loss of the young Jesus in the temple; the acceptance of Jesus’ mission, even when she did not understand the purpose of all He had to do; the death of Saint Joseph; the persecution and misunderstanding shown towards her Son; the sight of Him carrying His Cross; the abandonment of Jesus by all but her, Mary Magdalene and John; the death and burial of Jesus and, finally, being deprived of His consoling presence on earth. Despite all this, we say with great truth: “Queen of heaven, rejoice!”
In her acceptance of God’s will for her, Mary found the source of her great peace and therefore, of her joy. In his spanine Comedy, Dante has Paradise described in this way: “In His will is our peace.” Mary also was full of joy because of her fullness of grace. Joy is not possible when it is sought outside of God and a life of virtue.
All around us, we see a manic search for pleasure and an ever elusive “happiness.” Yet, because these are often sought in the wrong places, they bring only sorrow, frustration and disappointment. Then, when we are really angry with ourselves for being fooled in such a way, we turn our anger towards other people and things, blaming them for our misery. We also become susceptible to empty promises and man-made hopes as the answers to our miseries and problems. The “blame game” begins and only adds to our anger and bitterness; ultimately it will lead us to our being disappointed once again.
Let us not allow ourselves to be robbed of our Christian joy
At a very difficult time in the life of society and in the life of the Church, Pope Paul VI wrote an Apostolic Exhortation not on sorrow or disappointment but on joy (Gaudete in Domino, 1975). It remains one of the most complete teachings of the Magisterium on this topic. The fact that it was written at such a difficult time for the Pope himself, for the Church and for society is a lesson in itself. Let us not be robbed of our Christian joy! Let it remain one of our characteristics, part of the light that we show forth to others as followers of Jesus. Jesus has conquered sin and death and has made us part of His victory. He has given us the truth and has shown us the way to Heaven and has given us the means to arrive there. We can truly say with Mary, our model in joy: Rejoice!
7 May 2009