Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation Evangelii Gaudium has produced significant reaction and commentary, both positive and negative. Many in the media have focused on the social, political, and economic implications of the document. Sadly, most commentators have looked past the obvious: the second word of the text and the title: joy. “The joy of the Gospel fills the hearts and lives of all who encounter Jesus” (EG 1).
Joy is such a central aspect of our faith. Unless we are filled with joy, we have no message of Christ to bring to the world. The accounts of the martyrs throughout history are full of descriptions of them going to their deaths with great rejoicing and full of joy. Joy reorients us away from our self-focused lives and onto what is really important. Mother Teresa used the acronym JOY as an aid to remind us of the proper ordering of the importance of things: Jesus, Others, You.
Joy is thus an important aspect of living out our faith, but as St. Thomas Aquinas notes, joy is not a virtue in itself. Referencing St. Paul’s Letter to the Galatians, St. Thomas comments that joy is “an act, or effect, of charity” and thus is one of the Fruits of the Holy Spirit (Summa Theologica II-II, q.28, a.4). Joy proceeds from and is caused by love. One could even say that joy is the external expression in our lives of our love for Jesus Christ. Our joy is what others see and experience through our attitude and actions. Pope Francis notes that “joy always endures” even if parts of our “lives seem like Lent without Easter” (EG 6). Our joy depends not upon the external circumstances of our life, but only upon our love of Christ.
Today’s feast of St. John, the Beloved Disciple, which falls during the octave of Christmas, reminds us of the importance of love and joy. The Evangelist proclaimed the love of God for us in his writings and his deeds. “God is love” declares St. John in his First Letter, and he writes in his Gospel, “God so loved the world that he sent his only-begotten Son.” There is the story that as an old man, St. John the Evangelist was living in exile on the island of Patmos. As he was the last living apostle, many people used to come to hear him preach. Every week he would give the same message: “Love one another.” When asked why he did not vary his preaching, St. John replied that that was what the Master always said.
Christ spent his whole life on earth preaching and teaching us how to love. Our message can be nothing less. If we love, if we truly love, we will be joyous with a joy that is overflowing and contagious at all times and in all situations. People will ask the cause for our joy and when they do we should be ready with the answer: our love for Jesus Christ.
St. John the Evangelist, pray for us.
Image: El Greco, St. John the Evangelist