Do you want to be happy? Look at Michelangelo’s 1512 painting

By Emmanuel Ojeifo

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The Third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete comes from the Latin language and it means “Rejoice.” This sentiment is very well captured in the Entrance Antiphon at this Mass, taken from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians which says: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice” (Phil. 4:4) Why do we have to rejoice? The antiphon provides the reason. We have to rejoice because “Indeed, the Lord is near” (Phil 4:5). The opening prayer of today’s liturgy takes up this theme again. It prays God to “enable us…to attain the joys of so great a salvation and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.” We run into the theme of rejoicing again in the first reading from the Prophet Isaiah, the Prophet of Advent. Isaiah says: “I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God, for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation, and wrapped me in the cloak of integrity” (Is. 61:1-2, 10-11).

The Responsorial Psalm of today is the spirit-filled song of praise, which our Blessed Mother Mary addresses to the Living God, the Magnificat. This ancient prayer of praise begins with the words: “My soul rejoices in/glorifies the Lord” (cf. Luke 1:46-5, 53-54). In the second reading, St Paul invites us to contemplate the beauty of holy joy. The opening words of the second reading are: “Be happy at all times” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-24). In the Gospel again, the theme of rejoicing appears in a subtle way in the attitude of John the Baptist. Joy here is about contentment. The source of John the Baptist’s happiness lies in the fact that he is content with being the voice that prepares the way for the Redeemer. He does not claim to be what he is not. He does not claim to be the Christ or Elijah or the Prophet. When the Jewish priests and Levites asked him if he was the Christ, John declared openly: “I am not the Christ. I am only a voice that cries in the wilderness: Prepare a way for the Lord.” The Evangelist describes John as “a witness who came to speak for the light” (John 1:6-8, 19-28).

Dear friends, if someone were to ask you upon leaving church today what the message of the liturgy is, you would be right if you just said: “Rejoice” or “Be happy.” We are summoned by God to be happy; to be cheerful; to be joyful. The Lord invites us to drink from the wellspring of joy because Christmas is near. That joy is Jesus himself. He is “joy to the world” as one of the beautiful Christmas hymns put it. Therefore, today’s liturgy serves as a kind of ‘break’ in this season of penance, when we recall the hope we have because the Lord’s coming is at hand.

Permit me to ask you: Are there Christians who are not happy? Or better still, are there people in our world who are not happy? Yes, indeed. There are. Pope Francis once said that, “There are many Christians whose lives look like Lent without Easter.” They are always sad and gloomy; they find no reason to rejoice or to be happy. They are always full of sorrow and lamentation as if the whole world is about to collapse on them. While we cannot simply dismiss their reasons for not being happy, today God himself addresses such Christians. He invites them to at least find one reason to be happy. The coming of the Redeemer should inspire them to re-live the fullness of Christian joy, knowing that the Lord is always near even in our moments of trouble and distress.

Jesus is the source of our joy. He is the only one who can satisfy the longing of the human heart. After searching endlessly for God in the materialist philosophies and ideologies of his time, St Augustine finally found God in the Catholic Church, and upon finding God he confessed: “O Lord, you have made us for yourself; and our hearts are restless until they rest in you.” As the Catechism of the Catholic Church puts it: “The desire for God is written in the human heart, because man is created by God and for God, and God never ceases to draw man to himself. Only in God will he find the truth and happiness he never stops searching for” (CCC n.27). God invites us to a relationship of love and communion with himself. Nothing else can take the place of God in our lives. No matter how hard we search elsewhere, we are not likely to find true and lasting happiness until we discover the Lord Jesus.

This truth needs to be resounded in today’s culture that is suffocated by materialism, consumerism, hedonism, and atheism. Human beings often mistakenly think that by acquiring more and more material things and by consuming more and more fantasies and pleasures of the world that they would find happiness. Modern culture has succeeded only in multiplying occasions of pleasure, but has failed to engender true joy. We see this in the remarkable bitterness on the faces of many people. Amidst all the comforts and pleasures of modern life at their disposal, they still feel a deep void in their hearts that all of the material things of life cannot fill. The more material goods they acquire, the more they want more. The more pleasures of life they consume, the more their bodies and instincts yearn for more.

We need to be told today that material things of life are not bad or sinful in themselves. But simply acquiring more and more objects of material sophistication cannot fill the void in our hearts. Only God can fill that deep void. The mad chase of pleasure will not bring us true joy; it will only end up hurting us deeply. Like the rich young man in Mark’s Gospel 10:17-22 who ran up to Jesus to inquire what he must do to inherit eternal life, we discover at a certain point in life that our consumer culture and all our material fantasies can never satisfy us until we find Jesus. Human beings want happiness that lasts, not ephemeral excitements, temporary pleasures, and fading euphoria. We want joy that lasts forever. Jesus is the answer to these genuine human longings. He is the source of our unending joy. He comes to bring us happiness. Nothing else can take his place in our lives.

It is interesting to know that at the beginning of his public ministry in his hometown at Nazareth, Jesus took up those same words of Isaiah, written about 600 years earlier, in our today’s first reading where he said: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me. He has anointed me and sent me to bring Good News to the poor, to bind up hearts that are broken; to proclaim liberty to captives, freedom to those in prison and to proclaim a year of favour from the Lord” (Isaiah 61:1-2). After reading this portion from Isaiah, Jesus began to speak to his townspeople; and the first words he said were: “This text is being fulfilled today even as you listen” (see Luke 4:18-22). Indeed, Jesus is the one who comes to proclaim Good News to us and bring us happiness. He is the Good News himself. The words of Isaiah find their fulfilment in him. Cut off from him, our lives will wallow in sorrow and pain.

Michelangelo, one of the greatest artists in history, captured this human longing for God in his painting of the Creation of Adam (c. 1508-1512 AD), which forms part of the Sistine Chapel’s ceiling in the Vatican. In the fresco, God is seen stretching out his hand to reach Adam; and on the other hand, Adam lying on the ground frantically tries to stretch his own hand in return to touch the hand of God. This is the dynamic reaching out to the eternal that is constitutive of what makes us human. We are constantly longing to go beyond ourselves to touch God, to reach out to him, to meet him. We do this instinctively because we want to reach out to the source of lasting happiness and fulfilment. This is the call of the season of Advent: that we go out of ourselves to discover Jesus, to find him, to meet him. Like the treasure hidden in a field, which a man finds, hides again, goes off happy, sells everything he owns and buys the field (cf. Matt 13:44-45), when we eventually find Jesus, nothing else matters to us. We go off happy and do everything possible to possess him.

Finally, at the very beginning of his Apostolic Exhortation on ‘The Joy of the Gospel’ (2013), Pope Francis wrote: “The joy of the gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Christ. Those who accept his offer of salvation are set free from sin, sorrow, inner emptiness and loneliness. With Christ joy is constantly born anew” (n.1). Pope Francis went further to say: “I invite all Christians, everywhere, at this very moment, to a renewed personal encounter with Jesus Christ, or at least an openness to letting him encounter them; I ask all of you to do this unfailingly each day. No one should think that this invitation is not meant for him or her, since ‘no one is excluded from the joy brought by the Lord.’ The Lord does not disappoint those who take this risk; whenever we take a step towards Jesus, we come to realise that he is already there, waiting for us with open arms” (n.3).

Let us pray that the Lord will help us to make the best of this holy season of grace. May he make us truly joyful, and bestow on us the happiness, which the world cannot give. Through Christ our Lord. Amen.

1 COMMENT

  1. This is beautifully written. Indeed, man’s always searching for long lasting happiness. It’s quite unfortunate that we search in the wrong places. Well done Emmanuel

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