Joy is a funny thing.
It’s a word that is thrown around to describe as many types of circumstances as one can think of. People speak of joy in many ways. They will say they are overjoyed that:
- they had enough coffee grounds left to make one last cup of joe
- they recently found out that they are expecting a child
- they made it on time to a meeting despite horrible traffic
- they just confirmed that their cancer is in remission
Google defines joy as “a feeling of great pleasure and happiness,” and basically asserts that joy is a simple emotion, such as being angry, happy, or sad. If this is indeed true, then living joyfully depends on the presence of a circumstance which invokes happiness, relief, or the absence of distress.
However, for the Christian, joy is much more than a fleeting emotion. Instead, Galatians 5:22 lists joy as the second fruit of the Holy Spirit, meaning that joy is a gift that we receive from God through the Holy Spirit.
There is a “but” here. Just because joy is a gift that we receive does NOT mean that our role is purely passive. Joy is a gift we can seek out, and a gift that we can dispose ourselves to receive more readily and more consciously.
Is joy just for Christmastime…or not?
It’s easy to associate joy with the Christmas season. The uplifting music, sparkling decorations, and remembrance of Christ coming to earth make our “tidings of great joy” as natural as a snowy Christmas in New England.
Advent is a little tougher, and external circumstances don’t help. During this period, we have presents to buy, a home to prepare, extra food to make, short days with more darkness than sunlight, deadlines to meet before vacation (or exams to study for) among other things.
Spiritually speaking, the liturgy emphasizes humble recognition of our fallen state, poverty of spirit, penance, preparation, and the ache of waiting for the Savior to come and redeem our wounded and dirty souls.
This might not seem to be the most natural canvas on which to paint a picture of joyful living.
Lessons from Pope Francis on Joy-filled Living
Faced with this counter-intuitive canvas for joy, Pope Francis tells us:
“I can say that the most beautiful and natural expressions of joy which I have seen in my life were in poor people who had little to hold on to. I also think of the real joy shown by others who, even amid pressing professional obligations, were able to preserve, in detachment and simplicity, a heart full of faith. In their own way, all these instances of joy flow from the infinite love of God, who has revealed himself to us in Jesus Christ.” – Evangelii Gaudium, 7
According to this reflection, joy is a fruit which comes from God’s love and the faith and love that we strive to practice. This means that it can touch us in any moment, regardless of what chaos swirls in or around us.
To bring this into greater perspective, Pope Francis adds:
“I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress.” – Evangelii Gaudium, 6
Seeing the World through the Lens of Joy
One conviction which I believe we can take from these reflections is that joy is less of a single act or moment and more of a lens through which we can view every situation we encounter in life, regardless of the immediate, inescapable sentiments and circumstances.
Put in this light, joy can most certainly permeate our liturgical and personal seasons of Advent just as much as those of Christmas. But, as with all good and difficult things, it takes time and practice.
How can we form ourselves to be more active, conscious recipients of the grace of joy, especially when external circumstances are more likely to lend themselves to stress, fatigue, and suffering? Here are three tips.
Three Tips to Discovering Joy During Advent As Well As Christmas
Pray (Always the first answer!)
Ask God for the particular grace to receive His gift of joy more actively and consciously in your daily life.
Immerse yourself in good examples.
Ask advice from, and surround yourself with, people who are visibly living in a true spirit of joy. You can glean wisdom from the lives of the saints or from family, friends, and mentors.
Make small acts of love.
The Catechism tells us that joy is one of the fruits of charity (CCC 1829). If the "lens" of joy is cleansed and sharpened by charity, then there is no better, more active way to seek out joy than by seeking out chances to love. (Don’t worry, I have great confidence that God won’t leave you with a lack of opportunities!)