Rejoice – for the Lord is at hand!
I like to think of myself as saying this in a kind of John the Baptist voice (a la “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand”), only with joy instead of penitence.
Yes, even in Advent, we can experience joy. Of course, in Advent we are to anticipate the joys of Christmas the coming of Christ again into our lives. But even in Advent – even in Lent – Jesus Christ is here with his people, and as I never tire of saying: where Jesus is, there is joy.
Throughout his letters, St. Paul refers to the fact that the Lord is at hand. Now he might have meant it in an eschatological (“end things”) sense, but it’s obviously true in a here and now sense too. I like to think, therefore, that verses 4 and 5 ought to be connected in our minds. “Rejoice in the Lord always” of verse 4 is directly related to “The Lord is at hand” of verse 5.
Why should we always rejoice? Because the Lord is at hand. Because God has sent His Son to be with us, and where Jesus is there is joy.
The fact that the Lord is at hand, with us right here and now, should govern all our thoughts and behaviors. It should, in fact, produce joy in us. We all take joy in many small things in this life: children singing, opening Christmas presents . . . the perfect parking space. How much more should we have joy in God coming to us, to take away our sins, and the penalty for them, and to equip us for heaven?
Jesus Christ, God Himself made one of us so He can be with us, is the perfect Christmas gift – and the only one that keeps on giving, day after day. How many of the Christmas gifts you received (not just this year but from others as well) are still actively giving you joy? But Paul commands us to rejoice in the Lord always.
The joy of Jesus is like that of Christmas, only infinitely better. The birth of Christ has a way of making us remember to rejoice, in spite of our circumstances. The light of Christ is so bright, that it puts our troubles in perspective and makes us rejoice. One of my favorite paintings is the Nativity by Geertgen tot Sint Jans (c. 1490.) In this painting the Christ baby is intensely bright in a scene and a world that is very dark otherwise. Mary’s face is light because it reflects the glory of her son. Advent is the serious and somewhat somber season that precedes the joy of Christmas, just like the Cross precedes the Resurrection. Advent, Lent, and Good Friday are the black background of the world, the black background of Geertgen’s painting, that makes the glory of Jesus Christ that much greater.
Here, let me show you what I mean: http://www.nationalgallery.org.uk/cgi-bin/WebObjects.dll/CollectionPublisher.woa/wa/work?workNumber=ng4081
(Click once on the image to get a larger image, or try the incredible Zoom feature! Paul Erlandson: try it on Holbein’s Ambassadors.)
Joy is not the same as happiness. Happiness is often based on mere human feeling; but joy is sterner stuff. It is delight in God and His presence and work among us. Joy is more eternal and steadier than happiness. While happiness can be like a roller coaster, based on emotions or situations, we are commanded to have joy always. Regardless of circumstances, Paul found joy because joy is based on what God has done, is doing, and can do, and not on what we do or cannot or do not do.
In spite of the litany of suffering in St. Paul’s life (read 2 Cor. 11:23-29), he was the most joyful man in the Bible. Paul wrote Philippians while in prison, and yet He uses the word “joy” or some form of the word 15 times! Paul’s joy is not a begrudging or calculating one, in which he says, “Let’s see: God commands me to be joyful, so I guess I’ll have to muster some up. But I don’t have to like it!”
Paul’s joy is superlative and almost uncontainable. He says: “Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!” It is like the superlative joy of the wise men who “rejoiced with exceedingly great joy” (Matthew 2:10.) For both, joy came from being in the presence of Jesus Christ.Paul commands you to rejoice, regardless of your circumstances, for God is near you. Paul himself has learned to be content, to be joyful, in all circumstances. Whatever state he is in, he is content (verse 11.) Whether Paul lives in heaven or on earth, whether he lives or dies (Philippians 1:20-26), whether he is full or hungry, and whether he abounds or suffers (verse 12,) he is content. No, he’s more than content: he’s joyful!
What a fanatic! How can Paul have joy in suffering and prison? Verse 13. “I can do all things through Christ Jesus who strengthens me.” How can Paul be content and even joyful in all things? Because Jesus Christ is in Him, working in him through all of his circumstances.
This all sounds good in theory, but how can we practically make it happen? Where is the Joy Button that I can push and make it happen?
Paul shows us two ways to find joy in Jesus. First, we attain and maintain joy in Jesus through prayer. Prayer is what draws us towards a God who has already come near to us. People are always looking for greater treasure in this world: a nicer car, a larger stock portfolio, a bigger house, or more power. But the most under-used, most overlooked, and most accessible treasure in the world is prayer.
Aladdin found himself enriched because he had access to 3 wishes from a powerful genie. But we have access to God Himself and His goodness, if only we would remember how close God is. How close? He’s only a prayer away.
When you are anxious because of the cares of this world, which are many, remember that God has allowed that circumstance so that you might more eagerly and quickly turn to Him. St. Paul found joy even, sometimes especially, in his suffering. And you can too, if you look for God and His joy through prayer in all your circumstances.
The second place Paul shows us where the treasure of joy may be found is in other Christians. What makes Paul joyful in this passage? In verse 10 it is because the Philippians have shown their love and care for Paul. All throughout the book of Philippians, Paul’s joy comes from Jesus through His Church. The way Jesus is often, if not primarily, present among us is through the Church, His house, His people. The way Jesus mediates His joy to us is therefore also often through the Church. Paul has joy in the presence and ministry of the Philippians, Timothy, and Epaphroditus. And all of these people have joy in Christ because of Paul’s loving ministry to them.
The next time you feel a lack of joy, consider what you have been doing to bring true joy, Jesus Christ, to others. We have this incredible ability to create joy in others because, as Christians, we are Christ-bearers. We are to bring Jesus to others. And where Jesus is there is joy.
“Rejoice in the Lord always. Again I will say, rejoice!”
For the Lord is at hand!
Resolution: I resolve to find joy today by turning to Jesus in every care of today.
Prayer: Father, help me to find joy today by finding Your Son, Jesus Christ. Give me Your grace to be joyful in all circumstances and to bring Your joy to others by serving them in love. Remind me to pray and make all my requests known to You, and make my service to You a sweet-smelling aroma to You. To You, our God and Father, be glory forever and ever. Amen.
Points for Meditation:
- How strong is your prayer life? Have you found a way to remember to pray every day, and even throughout the day? If not, how might you work toward this goal?
- Reflect on the difficult circumstances in your life. How might you allow God to turn them to joy by praying to God and seeking His joy in others?
- Practice the presence of God throughout the day that you might better realize that He is at hand, offering you joy.
© 2015 Fr. Charles Erlandson