“Shout for joy, daughter of Zion, Israel, shout aloud. Rejoice, exult with all your heart.” The scriptures for the Third Sunday of Advent bring us ever closer to the celebration of Christmas and summon us to joy. The Advent wreaths that decorate our churches mark this change of tempo by the more festive pink candle that is lit on this Sunday, a subtle change whose significance is not lost on the children who are generally invited to light these candles. The change of colour matches their mounting excitement as Christmas draws near.
A useful exercise on this Sunday of Advent might be a prayerful consideration of what joy might mean in our lives.
It is a difficult emotion to describe with any precision, and certainly not an emotion that can be summoned spontaneously. Lasting joy is rooted in a life at peace with itself, that is, secured in a sustaining love, and that can therefore look to the future with confidence.
Such was the joy to which the Prophet Zephaniah summoned Jerusalem. The trauma of exile, and the continuing insecurity of a threatening world, had undermined any possibility of lasting joy for her inhabitants. Their lives had been subject to the whim of powers beyond their control.
In such a situation it had been impossible to find peace of mind, let alone joy. They longed for the security of a loving God, a God who would restore the joy that had been theirs as the children of God.
This was precisely the joy that Zephaniah proclaimed, the joy that Advent promises. “The Lord, the King of Israel, is in your midst. He will exult with joy over you, he will renew you with his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.”
Lasting joy, a joy that feeds heart and spirit, cannot be purchased on the high street. It is the gift of the Son, born into this world, so that in him our joy might be complete. John the Baptist prepared the way for that joy. The crowds that flocked to him had one simple question: “What must we do?”
What are we to do during this Advent if we are to discover afresh a forgotten joy in our lives? John’s first call was to repentance, an essential element in our Advent preparation. Only when we have recognised the many barriers that obscure God’s presence are we open to his forgiveness. Such forgiveness, especially when celebrated in the Sacrament of Reconciliation, opens our hearts to joy.
John was quite explicit in his instructions to those who approached him: share what you have with the poor, exact no more than is your due and be content with what you have.
More importantly, John pointed the crowds to Christ, who would baptise them with the Holy Spirit. The Spirit is the precursor of Christmas, for the Spirit alone forms us in the likeness of Christ, making our hearts ready to celebrate the joy of his coming. The Spirit breathes life and joy into weary lives.
St Paul was overwhelmed with such joy: “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord, and that peace of God, which is so much greater than we can understand, will guard your hearts and your thoughts.”
May the peace of Christ bring joy to our lives.