In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit.
We are only one week away from the celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord. Our levels of anticipation and joy are increasing, or at least they should be. If they are not, then something is seriously wrong. Joy should, in fact, be the basic mood of every Christian. It should not be artificial or forced but something that bubbles up naturally from our sharing of Christ’s vision of life and His promises to us. Joy should be the normal experience of the Christian but there are quite a few who unfortunately do not have that same experience or conviction.
At times, one gets the impression that it is not the experience of many Christians, who somehow have come to believe that religion is no longer a serious business, that one is not living a good Christian life unless it is full of sacrifices, that Christianity means giving up many of the pleasures that are available to non-Christians. They seem to think that being a Christian means living a half-life as the price for a better one to come.
Karl Marx saw religion as the “opium of the people”, meaning the poorer classes. Religion, he believed, worked as a kind of anesthetic or opiate, devised by the rich and privileged, which helped the poor accept the miseries and injustices of the present life on the understanding that there was something much better on the far side of the grave.
All this is a great pity because the whole purpose of Jesus’ coming was to bring freedom, joy, and peace to people not only in the future but here and now. No one is meant to be freer than the Christian who follows Christ not in pain but with joy and enthusiasm. I am not an Orthodox Catholic Christian because I have to be; I am an Orthodox Catholic Christian because I could not imagine myself being anything else. We share the words of Peter to Jesus: “Where can we go? You have the words that give life.”
There used to be a saying, “A sad saint is a sad kind of saint.” A sad Christian is a contradiction in terms. That is not to say that there are not in any Christian life, as in any normal person’s life, times of pain, of sickness, of failure, of great loss. Grieving and letting go is an important life but these experiences will only bring temporary setbacks.
Every experience, if we can only realize it, is touched by God and has its meaning. Once that meaning is found and accepted, inner joy and peace can return. And the joy we are talking about is not something external. It has little to do with the high-jinx we see during a Christmas or New Year’s Eve party or after our favorite football team wins the Super Bowl, or our favorite baseball team wins the World Series. Much of that can be a kind of temporary escape from lives that are otherwise boring, oppressive, stressful, and unhappy.
Christian joy or happiness is deep down in the heart and is not incompatible with physical and emotional pain or difficult external circumstances. It is, as Jesus says, something that no one can take away from us. The season of Advent gives us the opportunity to collect our thoughts and rebuild our spiritual strength that we may find and reclaim that joy of which Jesus spoke.
Our role as Christians, whether priests, monastics, or laypersons, is to bring people to genuine conversion, a conversion that brings them face to face with Jesus and God, a conversion that brings a real joy and happiness into their lives.
Parents, especially Orthodox Catholic parents, have this role. They gradually and faithfully form their children to have the Christian spirit and outlook on life. A genuine Christian family is one of real joy. A place to which each member returns with joyful anticipation and expectancy, in other words, a real home.
Though Joseph and Mary were poor, they were nonetheless very rich. They were rich in love, rich in devotion, rich in faith, rich in righteousness. God blessed them with the singular honor of being the earthly parents of His Divine Son. The immense joy of expectation, of anticipation, of hope that Mary and Joseph felt at the impending arrival of the Son of God into their lives, and into the experience of humanity, words simply cannot describe.
We, too, should have that same joy, that same expectation, that same hope. If you do not have those feelings in your heart at this very moment then you do not understand your Christian Faith. If you are not going home to spend Christmas with your family, then something is very wrong with your life. Your priorities are all screwed up. And your understanding of Christmas is…well, you simply do not understand Christmas. That is the sum of it all.
Advent gives us ample time to reconnect with what is truly important. But for us to come to the realization of what is important, we must first change ourselves. We must change the way we think, the way we act, the way we live. We must look to Christ and not to the material world for the happiness and joy we seek. Nothing and no one on earth can give us what we truly seek; only Christ the Lord can do that. That is why He is coming among us. He will be here soon. Let us go to Bethlehem to await His arrival. Then, let us rejoice and be glad at His coming.