Mother Teresa often repeated another phrase, “the joy of loving Jesus.” She described herself as “the saint of darkness” because of the dark holes into which she entered in Calcutta’s slums, but also, as we discovered after her death, because of the 50 years of personal darkness she suffered. This persistent spiritual depression did not, however, diminish her radiant smile or tireless energy in serving the poorest of the poor.
To love Jesus is joy, and saints are canonized not because of their intelligence or magnificent achievements but because of their joy. The one thing necessary to be a saint, one of them said, is “energy,” meaning joyous zeal for God and neighbor. “Shout for Joy” the prophet Zephaniah commands us. “Sing joyfully with all your heart!” I went to Handel’s Messiah with a few friends last night, and Davies Symphony Hall was full of people. At the Hallelujah Chorus everyone stood, singing from their hearts, and one woman lifted her hands to heaven during the entire chorus. Our own cantor Natalia was singing in the 152-voice San Francisco Symphony Chorus behind the orchestra, lifting voice and heart to God with joy.
“Shout for joy,” the prophet commands, “for the King is in your midst; you have no further misfortune to fear.” St. Paul says the same in the second reading, the opening verse for the Gaudete Mass itself: “Rejoice in the Lord always… have no anxiety at all.” Fear is the Dark One’s primary weapon, and a depressing anxiety will always dog those who live in this world. But perfect love casts out all fear, so let us love. As Cardinal Pell told us on Wednesday, it’s either the Cross or Chaos, either God or nothing. A world without God is a very unhappy place. So let’s choose faith over fear!
How did Mother Teresa attain the “joy of loving Jesus?” By prayer and service. Prayer first: her daily Masses, holy hours, rosaries, and scripture readings. And then service: taking the joy of loving Jesus into the dark holes of the poor. You don’t get Christmas joy by eating a lot at social gatherings and by shopping at Costco, as good as those activities are. You get Christmas joy by being faithful to prayer and doing your daily responsibilities with kindness, patience, and a smile.
On Friday I went with two of our parish volunteers to Costco to get wreathes and poinsettias and other comestibles. You all know what it’s like to drive through the city, and to navigate the crowded aisles of a big box store, in mid-December. We prayed a rosary on the way down, and that made all the difference. In the store, people were practicing patience, waiting their turn, smiling at each another. I was amazed, too, at how many people recognized that a Catholic priest was in the store with them. They said “God bless you father” and “let me help you father.” I asked an employee where the wreathes were, and she walked half the store to find them for me, with a big smile and a “Merry Christmas, father.” In the checkout line the woman behind me asked for a prayer, as she had been suffering from an acute skin disease since 2014. I prayed over her and asked her to offer her sufferings to the Good God, and to pray for me. She smiled through her pain and said “God bless you, father.”
“What should we do?” the crowds ask John the Baptist. He gives precise instructions to tax collectors (a dirty job, but someone has to do it), to soldiers, and to everyone else. Because of these simple instructions to prepare for the Messiah, “the people were filled with expectation.” They were filled with joy, like children thinking about unopened presents under the Christmas tree. The Messiah is coming, dear children. The ways we prepare for Him with joy are simple: prayer and service. Practice the joy of loving Jesus, and you will radiate joy, giving that joy to those around you.