Let’s slow down for a moment, get reflective, and ask ourselves, “How joyful are we today?” On a scale of 1 to 10 what would our joy be? Looking at your faces, you look to me like a four. What’s happened today that our joy isn’t a ten? Do you remember the last time it was a ten? Maybe it was too long ago.
Jesus wants our joy to be a ten. He says in John 10:10: “I came that they may have life and have it abundantly.” And today He says, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and… your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:11). Jesus wants us to have His joy, complete joy, and there are three parts to it:
1) Pope Benedict said that Jesus rejoiced “in what counted most: his unique communion… with the Father”. In other words, He was joyful because God is His Father, and that means Jesus was always loved and protected, and there was a plan for Him.
Think about it: Whenever we lose our joy, it’s because we don’t see the plan. If I told you that whatever’s bothering you today is part of a great plan, that you’re going to understand it very soon, and that all this suffering would make sense… then our joy would come back, wouldn’t it?
We’re also protected. Do you remember the story about Johnny Johnny is a four-year-old, who’s tossing and turning in bed, anxious, stressed-out over how he’s going to pay the heating bill, buy groceries, and pay the mortgage. He can’t sleep. The next morning he gets up, goes to the playground, and his buddies on monkey bars say, ‘Johnny… you look tired, what’s going on?’ He says… ‘I don’t know how to pay the heating bill, I don’t know how to drive to the grocery store and get groceries, I don’t know how I’m going to pay the mortgage.’ His friends… look at each other and say in a matter-of-fact way, ‘Johnny… our dad does that for us. Our mom does that for us.’
Every time we lose our joy for a bad reason, think about this lesson: Does our Father take care of that?
2) Joy comes from keeping the commandments. In the Gospel we just heard, Jesus connects joy with obedience and love (Fr. Raymond Brown, The Anchor Bible, The Gospel of John XIII-XXI, 681). He says, “If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love.” And then He adds what we’ve already quoted: “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and… your joy may be complete” (Jn 15:9-11).
Real joy comes from keeping God’s commandments. For example, let’s say we always get into arguments with our family. We raise our voice unnecessarily and say things that we shouldn’t say. How do we feel afterwards? Horrible. We’re not only angry about the argument or what people did to us, but we actually feel worse because of the guilt of knowing that we said something mean or hurt someone. The better way is to keep the commandments: When we’re in an argument, stay calm and don’t say anything regrettable. Exercising self-control may make us feel as if we’re going to explode, but, afterwards we will feel better for not having said anything hurtful.
Or, take lying. None of us actually feels good about lying. Look at kids: typically, the older they get, the more they lie. And the more they lie, the sadder they are, because lying and joy cannot co-exist. We know we’re hurting ourselves and our relationships when we lie. It’s much better to tell the truth and accept responsibility for what we’ve done wrong, and then joy can return.
There’s a famous story from St. Francis of Assisi about true joy: One day he called Brother Leo and said, “Brother Leo… write what true joy is… A messenger comes and says that all the masters of theology in Paris have joined the Franciscan Order—write: that is not true joy… Or that my friars have gone to the unbelievers and have converted all of them to the faith; or that… I heal the sick and I perform many miracles… True joy is not in all those things.”
Brother Leo asked, “But what is true joy?” St. Francis replied, “I am returning from Perugia and I am coming here at night, in the dark. It is winter time… and so cold that icicles form at the edges of my habit and keep striking my legs, and blood flows from such wounds. And I come to the gate… and after I have knocked and called for a long time, a friar comes and asks: ‘Who are you?’ I answer: ‘Brother Francis.’ And he says, ‘Go away… you can’t come in.’ And when I insist again, he replies: ‘Go away… we don’t need you.’ But I still stand at the gate and say: ‘For the love of God, let me come in tonight.’ And he answers: ‘I won’t. Go to the Crosiers’ Place and ask there.’ I tell you that if I kept patience and was not upset—that is true joy and true virtue and the salvation of the soul’” (Francis and Claire, The Complete Works, trans. Regis Armstrong, OFM, ).
Similar to what we said last week, it’s not so much what happens to us, but what comes out of us that gives us joy. For me, some of the most deeply satisfying moments in my life have been when I was treated badly, misunderstood, insulted, but, when I tried to love, I realized I had grown and was able to love as Jesus loved.
Furthermore, may I add this: True virtue always means doing the right thing. So, if you’re simply exhausted today, which will affect your joy, then take care of yourselves. Go take a nap, eat a healthy meal, unplug and do something truly rejuvenating.
3) In St. John’s Gospel, joy is often connected with salvation: There are so many verses where people rejoice because of Jesus’ saving us, offering eternal life, etc. (Brown, 681). This means that joy is connected with the most important realities, and so God will often take away things that give us less joy in order to give us a deeper joy.
When I was young and our family would go to these big family get-togethers, there was the adult table and a kids table. We kids ate in 10 minutes and then went and played all around the house—it was so much fun! And I remember looking at the adults who would sit at the same table for three hours! It seemed so boring. However, as I’ve grown, as much as I liked playing outside, I realize there’s more joy being with my family and friends and sharing our joys, hopes, sorrows and difficulties. Talking for hours with our loved ones is one of the most satisfying experiences we have.
Now sometimes, on our own, we realize there are better things in life. Yet, other times, we’re stuck at low levels of happiness. Many young people, for example, are addicted to getting quick fixes: They can’t commit to what they’re going to do on the weekend or next year because something better might come up. While they may find immediate gratification on the weekend, they will lack the commitment necessary to have fulfilling, meaningful relationships; they’ll be stuck at that level. Others among us are so addicted to working and achieving that we don’t know how to rest, and we, too, are stuck.
Knowing this, God will sometimes take away these good things to force us to focus on something deeper. He’ll take away success to make us focus on character, which gives a deeper and longer lasting joy. He’ll take away our health to make us focus on family, which is more important. He may even take away family to make us focus on eternity, which is of eternal significance. Repeating what I’ve said before, as we grow old, He allows our physical beauty to fade. After 30, it’s pretty much downhill from there. Why? So that we focus on our internal beauty, which is more satisfying. It’s fitting therefore that many people grow in internal beauty around the age of 30, too.
Today, when we receive Jesus’ blessing or Holy Communion, let’s ask Him to heal our lack of joy. Let’s talk to Him about our problems and listen to what He suggests. And then, by God’s grace, let’s choose to root ourselves in Christ—that is, to value what He values, to think as He thinks, and to love what He loves.
Cardinal Timothy Michael Dolan, Archbishop of New York, wrote about a time in 1989 when he was doing a Good Friday liturgy at a hospice for dying AIDS patients run by St. Mother Teresa’s sisters. One man in a bed asked him to come closer but the sisters warned him, saying that this man was violent and had actually tried to bite the sisters a few times. You know what may happen if you get bitten by someone with AIDS. But this time, the man surprisingly kissed the cross which Fr. Dolan was carrying.
The next day, Holy Saturday, the man requested to see Fr. Dolan and asked to be baptized. Dolan asked why. He said he knew nothing about Christianity or the Church and had hated religion his whole life. But for the three months he was dying in the hospice, the sisters were always happy! When he cursed them, they were compassionate. When they cleaned up his vomit, bathed his sores, changed his diapers, they were smiling. He said, “All I know is that they have joy and I don’t. When I ask them… why they are so happy, all they answer is ‘Jesus.’ I want this Jesus. Baptize me and give me this Jesus! Give me joy!”
Dolan wrote: “Never as a priest has it brought me more satisfaction to baptize, anoint, and give first Holy Communion to someone. He died at 3:15 on Easter morning” (Priests for the Third Millennium, 199-200).
These sisters and St. Francis of Assisi: 1) knew God was their Father and focused on this relationship; 2) kept the commandments of Jesus; and 3) focused on the most important thing, salvation. That’s why they had complete joy.