O friends, not these sounds!
Let us instead strike up more pleasing
and joyful ones!
Joy! (Beethoven’s Prologue to Schiller’s “Ode to Joy”)
Pope Francis opens his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium, with a call for the faithful to live out the Gospel in a joyful mode. Like the baritone who opens the final movement of Ludwig van Beethoven’s Ninth Symphony, the Holy Father exhorts us to lead lives that are more evidently marked by joy. In the lines of Friedrich Schiller’s ode, Beethoven discerned a testament to the joy that impels men to unity and friendship, which leaves little room for gloom and sadness. Similarly, joy should mark the lives of Christians like a sweet-smelling perfume, leaving the trace of its scent wherever it is poured.
According to Pope Francis, this joy should permeate through our lives, even in somber moments, when we sow with tears. His point is that our lives should not be characterized as a struggle to uphold the burden of the Gospel. A faith that consists solely of rules and restrictions is not attractive, and Christ, himself, proclaims that his yoke is easy and his burden, light. So, rather than resembling the attendees of a funeral, Christians should reflect the light of the joyful end achieved by the Resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Of course, the proclamation of a full Christian life requires the defense of the Church’s teaching on controversial issues like the dignity of marriage and scourge of abortion. However, it is important to keep in mind the primacy of the joy of the Gospel message; it is not the scourge of sin but, rather, the joy of life that characterizes Christian evangelization. Pope Francis challenges us to reexamine our preaching and evangelizing efforts and to ask whether they are in proper proportion with the entire Gospel message.
The challenges of our times do call for certain issues to receive more attention than strict proportionality might call for, but I do not think that the Holy Father’s point is one of strict proportionality. He emphasizes that even when we must sow in tears and speak of hardships, our actions should still be marked by the joy that the Gospel brings into our lives. Like a fragrance that leaves a subtle trace even in the furthest corner of the room, the joy of the Gospel should still be present and discernible in our lives, especially while preaching and discussing these difficult issues.
When Mary, the sister of Martha, anointed Jesus’ feet at Bethany, the scent of the perfume filled the whole house. Her actions foreshadowed the death of Jesus, whose body would be anointed in the tomb. However, Mary had also recently been touched by the saving power of Jesus when he raised her brother Lazarus from the dead. Perhaps, her actions foreshadow more than just the death of Christ. Perhaps, her actions point to the Christian’s response to the Resurrection. Perhaps, her actions flow from the joy that has come and touched her heart through the actions of Jesus. Let us, then, imitate Mary, whose actions filled her house with a pleasant fragrance. Let our own actions and faith overflow with the odor of Joy!
Image: Lawrence Lew, O.P., Stained Glass at Bath Abbey