Pope Francis’ exhortation begins with these words:
The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew.
This message, which so characterizes the pontificate of Francis, has for many years captured my theological imagination. When I first read the words of Fr. Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, S.J., “Joy is the infallible sign of the presence of God,” I thought, “Yes!”
I have encountered holiness face to face in the local saints I have known up-close-and-personal over the years, and the common thread that joins them all — without exception — is their irrepressible joy, their capacity to face life’s infinitely diverse challenges with the unshakable inner delight of hope in God’s changeless mercy that makes all things new after the pattern of the Cross and Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Joy is, of course, not a virtue but a fruit of the Holy Spirit and so cannot be directly chosen. You can’t will joy, but you can will in a manner that fruits in joy. It’s a “side effect” of salvation, of inner freedom that yields a sweet harmony between the human will and divine grace. Joy is a sign that one’s heart is being re-created by the Spirit, and, as it is not simply a naive cheery optimism that ignores the dark realities of human travail, Christian joy burns especially bright in the darkest night where God-in-Christ worked His greatest work of all. Such joy-bearing sorrow allows Christians to genuinely own St. James’ admonition: “Count it all joy when you fall into various trials” (James 1:2).
With the help of a linguist colleague, I discovered a Greek name for these joyful saints I so admire: Charatokos, “The Joy-bearer.” Just as we name the supremely joyful woman Mary as Theotokos, the “God-bearer,” so we can say that each Christian is called by God to give birth to joy in the world.
What’s Joy Look Like?
As I think of one particularly holy man I know, these are the “signs” I once identified in my journal as the signatures of his being a Charatokos, a joy-bearer:
When I speak to him, or work with him, I’m always edified, built up, and more hopeful about difficult matters. Just yesterday I shared with him some recent painful family issues, and just his listening made me see things differently. I feel “lighter” after being with him, and am able to see good where before I saw only crud and yuk. When I’m working with him in silence, I feel myself praying spontaneously, as I usually do not; praying in a way I could describe only as enjoyable and fun. And natural. Yes, natural; he’s totally natural in his holiness, like it’s not sanctity. Like it’s normal. It’s strange, and more strange because it’s so consistent. When he’s having a rough day or a good day. Unswerving. But the best “feeling” I get around him (and this sounds ridiculously self-centered) is that when we’re together I really believe it’s all about me, that his real, true, genuine interest at that moment is in me, my world, my petty world and its frivolous concerns. It’s what I guess I hope God is like; but more than that, it’s what I hope one day to be like toward others. In a word, he makes me think being with God is fun, good, light, delightful, and I am a better me when I’m with him. In sum: love.
What of Advent?
As I thought of all these things today in my Advent reflection time, I had a brilliant flash of obvious insight: Advent is a season of joy!
So, what better penitential practice (yes, Advent bears the mark of penance) could one practice in this season of building joy than every day choosing to bear joy to someone else. An upbeat email, a random call, a kind smile, an interested conversation, a friendly letter, a sarcastic response omitted, an embrace given, a donation offered, a heartfelt word of encouragement, a loaf of bread broken and shared. Something small yet intentional every day, drawing from the inner resources of joy God has entrusted to us, spent on another. Especially an unworthy other. Something other-centered that starves our need for attention, pleasure, ease, to be right.
And just think, inasmuch as you bear the joy of God, you get, if but for a moment, to be infallible.