But, if we truly want to grasp the authentic joy of being a true disciple of Christ, then – not unlike our Blessed Mother – we need to make the very conscious choice to let go of our need to control, and to completely abandon ourselves to God’s grace. Fr. Eric Mah is a priest of the Archdiocese of Toronto. Here is his homily for the 3rd Sunday of Ordinary Time.
In today’s Gospel (Lk 1:1-4; 4:14-21), Jesus quotes that famous line from the prophet Isaiah (cf. Isa 11:2) when He says: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon Me, because He has anointed Me to bring good news to the poor” (Lk 4:18). And, of course, this reminds us of the very basic point that the Christian life is not meant to be gloomy or depressing – but is actually meant to be filled with joy. And so, each one of is truly called to rejoice in the Lord’s presence – and to take delight in His Commandments (cf. Ps 22:8).
Now, that said, isn’t it true that we often think of the Christian life not as a source of joy – but as something of an inconvenience and a burden? And so, even if we’re trying our very best to live the Christian life, isn’t it true that we often say to ourselves: “Well, wouldn’t it be great if I didn’t have to worry about God, the Commandments, or such things as heaven or hell? Wouldn’t life be so much easier? Wouldn’t I feel more free? And wouldn’t I simply feel more joyful?” It’s a very common type of sentiment – even among practicing Catholics.
And yet, perhaps, we might try to rethink this notion of Christian joy by reflecting on the great mystery of the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-39) – that very famous scene where Virgin Mary is told that she is to be mother of the Savior. And so, you’ll recall how the story goes: the angel Gabriel appears before Our Lady, but the first thing he says to her is this: “Rejoice, you who are full of grace, the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28)! Now, on the face of it, this invitation to “rejoice” might seem like your very typical, everyday greeting. And certainly, it was a greeting was often used in the ancient world. And yet, if we look at how the word “rejoice” was used in the Biblical tradition, we can see that it takes on a very different meaning. Because the word “rejoice” is actually used on four separate occasions in the Old Testament (cf. Zeph 3:14; Joel 2:21; Zech 9:9; Lam 4:21) – each time to indicate a sort of proclamation of joy at the coming of the Messiah. And so, you see, the angel’s words aren’t just meant to be your typical greeting – but, in fact, they’re meant to convey, again, a sense of joyful proclamation that the reign of evil, death and suffering has ended – and the kingship of the Messiah has truly begun.
Now, that said, the question remains: why is Mary – in particular – called to rejoice in this way? And, of course, the answer is found in the second part of the angel’s greeting – “[because] the Lord is with you” (Lk 1:28)! In other words, Mary is invited to rejoice in a very particular way because she is called to be the dwelling place of God Himself. And, of course, this alludes to the fact that – by way of sanctifying grace obtained in baptism – each one of us can truly say that God dwells within us. But, in fact, we can actually go a bit deeper. Because it’s probably no coincidence that – in the original Greek – the word “grace” actually has the same linguistic root as the word “joy”. And so, on a much deeper level, what the Gospel is saying is that Mary’s joy stems from the fact that she is not only called to be the Mother of the Savior, but she is also in a state of perfect grace – or rather, a state of perfect communion with the Lord. In other words, Mary has not only given her consent to become the Mother of Christ, but she has also chosen – quite explicitly – to completely abandon herself to God’s will – to be totally shaped and formed by His grace. And, of course, this is precisely why she says at the end of the story: “Behold the handmaid of the Lord: be it be done to be according to Thy Word” (Lk 1:38).
Now, certainly, this is a lot for us to take in – and it’s somewhat abstract. But perhaps, this Gospel might give us some insight as to why we might be lacking a sense of joy in our practice of the Christian faith. Because, you see, we might be Catholic in the sense that we go to Mass every Sunday and we’ve been baptized in the Catholic Church in a very formal sense. But, if we truly want to grasp the authentic joy of being a true disciple of Christ, then – not unlike our Blessed Mother – we need to make the very conscious choice to let go of our need to control, and to completely abandon ourselves to God’s grace. In other words, as long as we continue to live the Christian life in a very calculating, self-serving and self-centered sort of way – we will never find true joy. As long as we continue to relate to the Lord as someone with whom we are trying bargain or from whom we are simply trying to “get things from” – we will never find true joy. And, as long as we continue to do good things not out of a sense of love for and generosity with the Lord, but simply because we want to go to heaven and avoid going to hell – then, again, we will never find true joy. Because, if we look at the Gospel, you’ll notice that true joy is never promised to those who are God’s “employees” or God’s “slaves” – but it is only promised to those who are truly God’s children (cf. Mt 19:14).
Now, that said, we should always remember that being a true child of God isn’t merely a state of being – but it is also a state of mind. And so, even though each one of us is truly born in the “image and likeness” of God (Gen 1:26), each one of us must also put in the time and effort to really grow into our identity as sons and daughters of Christ the King – and to really appropriate this notion of being a child of God. Because, unless we’re truly prepared to trust the Lord – to completely abandon ourselves to Him – and to really give of ourselves without counting the cost, we will never experience the true joy to which the Gospel is calling each one of us – and for which each one of us is so desperately searching.
St. Therese of Lisieux has a very interesting comment on this point when she says that there’s actually no greater way for us to show our love for Jesus than to completely abandon ourselves to Him. Now, on the face of it, this might sound like a very simple statement – but it’s actually quite profound. Because what she’s saying is this: what is most pleasing to the Lord is not that we do any number of good works – or even that we suffer for His sake – but that we choose to completely abandon ourselves to His Divine Providence.
But, if you think about it, though, this actually makes a lot of sense. Because what does it really mean for us to completely abandon ourselves to the Lord? It means that we’re making a very profound act of trust in the person of Christ Himself – whereby we are saying to Him: “Look, I trust in You! And I choose to let go of all my worries and anxieties – but I have complete and utter confidence in Your fatherly care.” And here’s the thing: if we have the courage to trust the Lord in this way, then He is able – in turn – to give all sorts of extraordinary grace which, in fact, He is dying to give us – but which depends very much on our very free and conscious decision to give Him permission to do with us according to His Word (cf. Lk 1:38). And, quite honestly, what could be more pleasing to our Father in heaven – than for His children to really trust Him in this very deep and profound sort of way?
Now, as we all know, it can be quite difficult for us to cultivate this sense of true abandonment – if only because we can’t fake it! And, you see, that’s why it’s so much easier to try to convince ourselves that we are pleasing the Lord by offering up any number of prayers and good works – because we’re still able to retain a sense of control over our own lives! But, of course, true abandonment is a very different sort thing – because it’s kind of an “all-or-nothing” sort of thing. And so, either we really trust the Lord – or we simply do not. It’s really as simple as that!
And yet, perhaps we might turn once again to St. Therese to see if she can give us some advice on the matter. And so, at the end of her life, when St. Therese was basically dying from tuberculosis, she basically said this: “If I did not accept my suffering from one minute to the next, it would be impossible for me to remain patient. And so, instead, I focus simply the present moment, I forget the past, and I take great care not to worry about the future. Because, whenever we get discouraged or we start to give into despair, it’s usually because we’re thinking far too much about the past and the future. And, in fact, if we find ourselves thinking about the painful things that may or may not happen to us in the future, then we’re basically lacking in our sense of confidence in the Lord.”
Now, if we take the time to reflect on our own experience, perhaps we might see that what St. Therese is saying is entirely true. Because isn’t it true that we often allow ourselves to get caught up in our worries about the past or to become apprehensive about what might happen in the future? Isn’t it true that we often send up all sorts of prayers and petitions to the Lord – without even thinking about whether they are consistent with His will? And isn’t it true that we often insist that our lives play out in a very particular sort of way – based on our own very narrow expectations of how things should be?
And yet, in keeping with the examples of St. Therese and our Blessed Mother, perhaps we might make up our minds to focus simply on the present moment, to receive each day – each minute – as a very precious gift from the Lord, and to leave all things in His hands. Because, again, this is truly what is most pleasing to Our Lord – and more to the point: this is the only way for us to receive the most precious gift of Christian joy.