|Godspell, "Prepare ye the way of the Lord!"|
In the beginning of the movie Godspell, we hear the voice of one crying out in Central Park:
Prepare ye the way of the Lord!
This joyful voice, though not as good as mine, echoes through the streets of New York, summoning disciples from their daily grind to the Bethesda Fountain. There, we find John the Baptist, sporting a multi-colored tailcoat and jeans, holding hands with the winged-angel statue that hovers above the fountain. One-by-one they come – a waitress, an artist, a taxi driver and his passenger, a business woman – running, skipping, dancing their way into Central Park. One-by-one, they join John in song and plunge themselves into the fountain to be baptized by him. If I had to characterize this 1973 flash mob with one word, it would be joy. Preparing the way of the Lord isn’t a dreary, frightful chore; it’s a joyful conversion of heart because the Messiah brings joy to the world.
On this third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, our readings call us “to cultivate joy and allow it to sustain us.” Joy is the common thread in today’s readings. In our passage from Isaiah, the prophet says, “I rejoice heartily in the Lord, in my God is the joy of my soul.” In our Responsorial, we hear our Blessed Mother beautifully proclaim to Elizabeth: “My spirit rejoices in God my Savior.” And in our second reading, Saint Paul “encourages his readers to let joyfulness be a constant characteristic of their daily lives.” Isaiah, Mary and Paul have prepared the way of the Lord, just as John preaches in our Gospel; they've centered their lives on God, and they rejoice in it.
So what is the joy that’s ushered in by the Messiah? What are we preparing for? It isn't just happiness. It’s not that giddy feeling we get on Christmas morning when realize that the Elf on the Shelf will finally go back home to the North Pole. It’s not the belly laugh that wells up inside of you when you see your clergy dressed in pink twice a year. It’s deeper than that. Joy is sharing in God’s life. God loves us so much that he sent “his own Son into the dysfunction of the world so that he might gather that world into the bliss of the divine life.” That’s the message, that’s the opportunity that the Word Made Flesh brought into the world, and with that message comes great joy. Accepting this fundamental truth brings with it eternal joy, a joy that persists through sorrow and suffering, a joy that sustains and comforts us in this life, and that carries us into the fullness of God’s eternal joy in the next.
Saint Paul is serious when he tells us to “Rejoice always!” Joy isn't a fleeting emotion; it’s a way of life. “Joy does not simply happen to us. We have to choose joy and keep choosing it every day.” Just think of the people in your life who are always joyful, no matter what. Aside from being a little annoying, they’re pretty remarkable people. They have the same problems and challenges that the rest of us have (sometimes even more), but they choose to be joyful. They choose to focus on the good things in their lives, and they choose to be grateful to God for them. They choose to spread their joy, not their sorrows. They choose to bring joy to the world. Being joyful is a choice. “There is so much rejection, pain, and woundedness among us, but once you choose to claim the joy hidden in the midst of all suffering, life becomes celebration.”
What’s their secret? What helps these joyful people choose joy? They've centered their lives on God. Like Isaiah, Mary, Saint Paul and John the Baptist, joyful people put God at the center of their lives. Isaiah set aside his shortcomings to accept his call to be God’s prophet; Mary, despite her youth, gave her assent to God’s wish that she should be his mother; Paul gave up a life of prominence for a life of imprisonment, beatings, shipwreck and ultimately death, all to preach God’s word to the Gentiles; and John shunned earthly comforts to prepare the way of the Lord. For Isaiah, Mary, Paul, John and all joyful people, God comes first. When God comes first, our lives are properly ordered; our paths are made straight; we put the needs of others before our own, and we’re filled with God’s joy.
The great thing about God’s joy is that it’s catchy. It can’t be contained. Think of the impact that Isaiah, Mary, Paul and John the Baptist have had on civilization. By putting God at the center of their lives, they've brought joy to the world. Think, again, of those joyful, God-centered people in our lives. We can’t help but smile when we’re around them. They spread joy by being joyful. They bring joy to the world. Like a great flash mob, what starts with one person grows into a joyful chorus singing God’s praise, bringing joy to the world.
I saw a great flash mob on YouTube the other day. It took place in December last year at the Smithsonian Air & Space Museum in Washington, DC. It started with a lone cellist, sporting a crisp, blue uniform, fittingly bowing the rolling strains of Bach’s Jesu, Joy of Man’s Desiring. One-by-one they came, a doublebass, then violins, violas and woodwinds. One-by-one, each member of the United States Air Force Band joined together to prepare the way of the Lord in song, sharing their joy and their talent with their amazed audience, who received that joy with smiles on their faces and tears in their eyes. If I had to characterize this 2013 flash mob with one word, it would be joy. And if that weren't moving enough, a dozen or more trumpets announced the transition to a familiar hymn, a hymn that captures the message of our readings perfectly:
Joy to the world, the Lord is come!
|U.S. Air Force Flash Mob, 2013|
Readings: Isaiah 61: 1-2a, 10-11; Luke 1: 46-50, 53-54; 1 Thessalonians 5: 16-24; John 1: 6-8, 19-28
 Patricia Datchuk Sánchez. “Enlivened by Joy,” National Catholic Reporter, vol. 51, no. 4 (December 5-18, 2014) at 27.
 “Joy,” The Anchor Bible Dictionary, vol. 3, David Noel Freedman, ed., (New York, Doubleday, 1992) at 1023.
 Robert Barron, The Strangest Way: Walking the Christian Path (Maryknoll, Orbis, 2002) at 31.
 Henri Nouwen, Here and Now, 1994.
 Henri Nouwen, The Return of the Prodigal Son (New York, Doubleday, 1992) at 116.