C.S. Lewis wrote the story of his own coming to faith in a book called Surprised By Joy. Lewis describes the moments of joy in his life as “sign-posts” along the way to faith. In this context joy is an intense longing for something more, something higher, or greater in life. The experience or moments of awareness lift one up and pull one along the path of life which intensifies the longing, the desire. It was this experience of joy that led Lewis from atheism to theism and then to Christian faith.
During this fourth week of Advent we have the opportunity to be “surprised by joy.” Christmas is only six days away. In that celebration of great joy we remember the birth of the Son of God, the Messiah, the Savior. For now we continue our preparation for this celebration. Part of this preparation is opening our hearts to reflect on the great love that God continues to bestow on us. Encountering the Lord is an encounter with joy.
Reflecting on the longing in our hearts helps us to encounter the Lord. The longing of mankind for peace, love and mercy are reflected in the readings for today’s liturgy. The first reading from Micah speaks of longing in terms of a leader who will come forth. The leader will come to shepherd his people delivering them from oppression and fear. “He shall be peace.” The prophetic words are brought to fulfillment in Christ Jesus. It is in Jesus that we experience the incredible love and mercy of God through which we become one with Him and each other. In this encounter, we experience peace.
The passage from the Letter to the Hebrews, which serves as the second reading for Mass, speaks of the manner in which this fulfillment takes place. The author makes a contrast between ceremonial offerings and the self-offering of Christ. God does not desire the ceremonial but the true sacrifice of one’s self. Christ is the One who did just this saying: “As it is written in the scroll, behold, I come to do your will.”
The author continues: “By this ‘will,’ we have been consecrated through the offering of the body of Jesus Christ once for all.” Christ takes on a human body, becomes human to show us the way to the Father. He does this by laying down that “body” in perfect obedience to the Father. By this, the brokenness that humanity experienced is now healed at its core. In doing this, Jesus becomes the source of our peace, he is peace. The basic longings for peace, love and mercy remain but now the satisfaction is raised to a whole new level and experience. Christ is the answer to the longings of the human heart.
The Gospel reading recounts the Visitation. Mary, now carrying Jesus in her womb, visits her cousin Elizabeth who is, as well, with child. The pre-born child, who will be called John, leaps for joy, even in the womb. The “leaping” represents the longing and desire of every human heart. The “joy” represents the realization and awareness that the dawn of salvation is at hand. Elizabeth with great faith exclaims to Mary, “Blessed is the fruit of your womb.”
Imagine the surprise these two women have experienced. Elizabeth was barren and elderly, supposedly beyond the child-bearing age. Imagine her reaction of hearing that she would conceive from her husband Zeccariah. Imagine her reaction to learn that her child would usher in the coming Messiah. Mary was engaged but not yet married when Gabriel appeared to her. That was a surprise but even more was the message that she would conceive through an overshadowing of the Holy Spirit. Moments of great surprise and great joy. The dawn of salvation has begun.
The time between Thanksgiving and Christmas can be filled with many good things. Preparation for Christmas through shopping for gifts, visits to friends, family and work gatherings, preparations for meals, baking cookies and so forth are all good opportunities to rejoice. Yet in the midst of all this activity there can also be frustration, sadness and anxiety.
The fourth week of Advent gives us an opportunity to once again focus on the “reason for the season” or better yet the source of our joy.