Malcolm Muggeridge was a British television commentator, satirist and author. One of his books was “Something Beautiful for God.” The subject of the book was the work of Mother Teresa of Calcutta. His encounter with her and the Missionaries of Charity had much to do with his being received into the Catholic Church.
He wrote this description of Mother Teresa and her sisters which helped many people find hope in a harsh world: “Their life is tough and austere by worldly standards, certainly; yet I never met such delightful, happy women, or such an atmosphere of joy as they create. Mother Teresa, as she is fond of explaining, attaches the utmost importance of this joyousness. The poor, she says, deserve not just service and dedication, but also the joy that belongs to human love…. The Missionaries of Charity … are multiplying at a fantastic rate. Their Calcutta house is bursting at the seams, and as each new house is opened, there are volunteers clamoring to go there. As the whole story of Christendom shows, if every thing is asked for, everything – and more – will be accorded; if little, then nothing.”
Blessed Teresa of Calcutta and her sisters are known for their great joy. The joy comes from an active awareness of being loved by God. Today, we celebrate the Third Sunday of Advent, also known as Gaudete Sunday, a day of rejoicing. The name “Gaudete Sunday” comes from the Latin entrance antiphon for Mass that begins “Gaudete in Domino semper” (“Rejoice in the Lord always”), which itself comes from the Letter to the Philippians.
Joy permeates our celebration this Sunday. The basis for joy is described in the Gospel reading from the Gospel according to John. John the Baptist is questioned: “Why do you baptize if you are not the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet?” He replies: “I baptize with water; but there is one among you whom you do not recognize, the one who is coming after me, whose sandal strap I am not worthy to untie.”
The “one coming after me” is Jesus, the Light of the World. As Jesus comes into the world he brings light to those in darkness and lifts us from the burden of sin giving us the fullness of life. This is the reason for joy.
The call for joy is set forth in the other readings for the Mass. The first reading from the Prophet Isaiah speaks of his own mission and life but also foreshadows the advent of the Christ when he says: “He has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor, to heal the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives and release to the prisoners, to announce a year of favor from the Lord and a day of vindication by our God.”
Recall that in St. Luke’s recounting of the opening of Jesus’ public ministry he tells the story of Jesus going into the synagogue in Nazareth, opens the Isaiah scroll, reads this passage and then proclaims, “Today, this scripture passage is fulfilled in your hearing.” Isaiah’s proclamation is filled with joy at the salvific work present in his day. “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul; for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation and wrapped me in a mantle of justice.”
The joy Isaiah experiences and the joy Jesus provides are rooted in the Lord’s salvific work. Love is the motivation for salvation and it is accomplished through the love of Christ Jesus.
The Blessed Mother recognized the day of salvation when Gabriel announced that she was to be the Mother of the savior. Her response, “let it be done to me as you have said,” is a profound act of trust and reliance on the Lord. Her willing participation in salvation is a joy-filled response to God’s goodness. Her joy becomes clear when she visits Elizabeth, her elderly cousin who is preparing to give birth to John. Elizabeth greets Mary with the words, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me?,” Mary replies with her song of praise, now referred to as the Magnificat.
The song supplies our responsorial psalm in today’s liturgy: “My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord; my spirit rejoices in God my savior. For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness; behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed. The Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is from age to age to those who fear him. He has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones but lifted up the lowly. The hungry he has filled with good things; the rich he has sent away empty. He has helped Israel his servant, remembering his mercy, according to his promise to our fathers, to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”
The response of joy to the salvation won for us is echoed in St. Paul’s Letter to the Thessalonians. In the passage that serves as today’s second reading St. Paul joins rejoicing with prayer and thanksgiving. He writes: “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. In all circumstances give thanks, for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.”
The joy that fills our hearts in response to God’s love spurs us on to live in his love. The ongoing transformation of our hearts moves us toward holiness in all aspects of our lives. The more we allow the love of God to penetrate our lives, all aspects of our lives, the more he will shape us into the persons he calls us to be.
St. Paul writes: “May the God of peace make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ. The one who calls you is faithful, and he will accomplish it.”
Joy is a force for transformation in our lives and in the world around us. Blessed Mother Teresa gave us a vivid example of the power of joy. The joy she experienced came from a vibrant awareness of God’s love. As we journey through Advent we once again here the call: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.”
Msgr. Joseph Prior is pastor of St. John the Evangelist Parish, Morrisville.