Circular Letter: Advent 1994

Christmas Joy with the Holy Angels!

The holy angels bring us an Advent message of great joy, so exquisitely expressed by the angel to the shepherds watching their sheep upon Bethlehem’s plain: “Fear not, for behold, I proclaim to you great joy, which shall be for the whole people, for today has been born to you a Savior, Who is Christ the Lord in the city of David. And this shall be a sign for you — you shall find the Infant wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in a manger” (Lk 2,10).

Yes, this is the joy of Christmas for which our hearts are longing. Recall the Christmas joy of childhood, how warm, how palpable, how it filled our hearts! For many it may seem like a childhood dream, long past and put away. And yet the longing remains, the deep-down conviction,… or is it only more a flickering of hope, that such joy is really possible, that it can be ours anew if only we are willing to become a child at heart.

Where does this search for Christmas joy begin? The longing for happiness has been inscribed indelibly into our hearts by God. Hence, it is not possible not to desire happiness. What is very possible, though, is to search for it in the wrong place and in the wrong way. How many have unwittingly strayed afar from joy. If it so happens that our Christmas joy has been growing fainter as the years go by, we would do well to lend a hearkening ear to the angels who can lead us back to the cause and object of our joy.

In last year’s Christmas Circular we saw that all those who found their way to the Christ Child were led there by the holy angels. They are our God-given guides. What singles their guidance out in this season is the exceeding joy they communicate to the searchers. Indeed, it seems that they can only effectively guide those desirous of happiness. In order to appreciate this, we need to pause and consider the nature of joy, what pre-dispositions it requires in our hearts, and how it is, that while all desire it, few there are who actually find joy today.

The Paradox of Joy

The enigma surrounding joy is this: that while most desirable, joy is not to be sought for its own sake. Ironically, while most desirable, it it is not what is most desirable. Joy, you see, is the first fruit of love, a warm effusion of the fire of love embracing the beloved. We might call joy a ‘light shadow’, the bright aurora or halo of love which always accompanies true love but which cannot exist without love. Accordingly, it makes more sense to search for the enduring tree than the passing fruit, it makes more sense to search for the fire than its surrounding glow, it makes more sense to search for the Beloved than for the ‘light shadow’ of his joy to fall across our heart. If we seek the cause, the effect shall surely be ours, but he who seeks the effect alone seeks in vain. Love is the cause of joy, but love itself has a ’cause’, or perhaps we would do better to say that love has a ‘because’, that is, a motive, which is the very goodness of the thing or person loved.

The lover perceives the goodness of the beloved and wants to be one with him. Hence, Pascal’s observation: “The heart has its reasons which the reason knows not.” This is quite distinct from the deceptive, though subjectively accurate saying: “Beauty (goodness) is in the eyes of the beholder.” This may seem ‘true’, but objectively it is as far from the truth as fool’s gold is from real gold, as far as bad wine is from great vintage wine. The desire is in the heart, but the good and the true belong to the order of reality. This is discovered by those, who were initially inebriated with a false illusion. Upon waking back into reality, they realize that they have been drinking the bad wine first and last. In this desire for a false good there is certainly no lasting joy.

The angels are connoisseurs of the wedding feast of God, and it is they who can school our spiritual palate to correctly discern and properly seek the goodness of Him Who alone is good. And then alone shall we know true joy that cannot be taken away.

Issuing from and following upon love, joy is the first passion of the soul and the first affection of the will. Joy is nothing less than the satisfaction or delight of the will together with the esteem with which we regard and savor the good of our desires (cf. St. John of the Cross. Ascent III.17). “Taste and see how good the Lord is!” (Ps 34,8)

The Kinds of Joy — (Some are unkind)

Joy may be active or passive. It arises actively when we consciously or clearly and distinctly appreciate the goodness of the object of our desires and share in that good by possessing it in love. Joy comes with the possession or union of love. Yet a possessive love, while it has enjoyment, is void of joy, or at least, diminishes it greatly.

Again, the paradoxical problem with joy is not its scarcity, but rather its cornucopian abundance. There is a veritable smorgasbord of joy possible for the human heart. Indeed, there are six different kinds of goods from which joy may arise: temporal, natural, sensual, moral, supernatural and spiritual goods. At this six-course banquet many a foolish soul will glut itself on the first courses, thereby rendering itself incapable of the true joy of the spirit, in which the true joy of Christmas consists. They get caught up with the tinsel and the titillating goods of the ‘season to be joy” and jolly well miss seasoned joy. Prudent souls, like the merchant in search of priceless pearls, will temperately pass over the inferior plates (pearls) until they find one of exceedingly great value, and then sell all in order to possess it in a proportionately great joy. The Apostles left left everything to follow the good Lord, and so were deemed worthy to share in the joy of their Master.

Whoever looks beyond the first five courses of lesser joy for the sake of spiritual union with the bridegroom shall not only know this joy, but shall also share more perfectly in the joys of the present time. This is yet another paradox of joy, which the devil wishes would remain well hidden: by surrendering lesser joys for the sake of the greater, a soul does not lose them, but rather gains them. Indeed, this soul shall enjoy them perfectly than baser souls who, fearing to lose out on happiness, gave themselves over to baser things. Their single talent will be taken from them and given to him who has ten so that he may be utterly filled with good things. Is it not evident that the most essential ingredient for the joyful savouring of the entire banquet is the love and esteem we harbor for the guest of honor? In this esteem, of course, the other joys are neither lost nor diminished, rather they are enhanced and ennobled, sharing as they do in the greatest cause of joy: our spiritual love for the bridegroom.

And contrarily, how mean and contemptible is that soul and its sort of joy that would sit at a stranger’s table only to enjoy his food! The guest that refused to don the proffered wedding garment (that would indicate his heartfelt participation in the bridegroom’s joy) was rightly bound hand and foot and cast out into the darkened gloom without. A pathetic picture, to be sure, and all the more so, since it so poignantly depicts modern man’s misguided, so often despairing, search for Christmas joy. Here is a call for wisdom: “If I forget you, Jerusalem, let my right hand wither! Let my tongue cleave to my palate, if I do not set Jerusalem above my highest joy! (Ps 137,5-6).

Advent is a time of preparation, for expectantly waiting the coming of the bridegroom. Let us keep our lamps vigilantly burning, and trim the wicks of joy, being sure to have a reserve of oil, ready to go out and meet Him when he comes. Let us survey the kinds of goods upon which we could foolishly squander the oil of joy.

Temporal Joys

Temporal joy is that which arises from the delight in material possessions, honors, advancements and gifts in this world. Christmas based on such the like promises a very shallow joy. The commercial world has always tended to prostitute the sacred mystery of the Incarnation to the more lucrative liturgy of mammon. God be praised that this evil will one day be ended, when the curse it has called down upon its head is finally meted out: “Rejoice over her (Babylon), O heaven, O saints and apostles and prophets, for God has given judgment for you against her” (Apoc 18,20).

The principal evil accruing from the attachment to temporal goods is that they withdraw the heart from God (Ascent III.18-19). Neither Herod nor Jerusalem looked forward with joy to the coming of the new born King of the Jews, because their hearts were inordinately attached to their positions and possessions. But the poor shepherds and the wise men bearing gifts experienced exceedingly great joy in the coming of the Christ Child.

Joy in Natural Talents

The joy in natural blessings is that delight one takes in one’s own natural beauty, grace, health, prowess and such the like. We call this the ‘body cult’ today,… one of the many altars of the New Age. Disorder in these affections lead to six kinds of evil: 1) vainglory, presumption, pride and disdain of neighbor; 2) sensuality and lust; 3) adulation and flattery, deception and self-seeking, as Isaiah noted: “He that praises you, deceives you” (3,12 — see modern politics); 4) the dulling of reason, whereby the modern world is incapable of seeing the need for conversion and true penance (see the shallow mindlessness of most TV programs); 5) the distraction and dissipation of the mind upon which follows tepidity and weakness of spirit in the appreciation of the good and in the resistance to evil; and 6) a spirit of sloth which finds the service of God to be tedious and troublesome. Here are the roots of public blasphemy and the death of true, spiritual joy. Here is the generation that dreads “having to go to Church” one hour a week but can gape for hours at the idiot box.

Those noble souls that set their joys in greater things will savor the peace of humility and the warmth of fraternal charity. They will become true disciples of Christ. They will be freed from distractions and freed for recollection in prayer and know the bliss of interior tranquility, piety and peace. Moreover, these souls “come to have an angelical conformity with God, and become, both in spirit and body, a worthy temple of the Holy Spirit” (Ascent III, 23,4). Freed from innumerable temptations, these souls are disposed for the lights and joys of infused contemplation as they grow strong in love.

Joys of the Senses

Each and every sense faculty naturally seeks its object of pleasure. Failure to mortify the joy found in the gratification of the senses leads to a plethora of evils: 1) to vanity, dissipation, immodesty and covetousness through the eyes; 2) to gossip, curiosity, envy and rash judgments through the hearing; 3) to contempt for one’s neighbor (especially for the poor and the sick) and for lowly and humble things through the sense of smell; 4) to gluttony, drunkenness, wrath and discord through the palate; and 5) to luxury, drug abuse, effeminacy and all license through the tactile love of soft comforts (Ascent III, 25).

Faithful souls, on the other hand, who guard their vessel for the Lord will enjoy tranquil self-possession, the spiritual elevation of their faculties in an “angelical, celestial state” (Ascent 26,3). Such souls will come to see God and experience a hundredfold joy in His creation.

Joy Over Goods of the Moral Life

The moral goods, over which a soul may rightly rejoice, are the virtues which perfect man in righteousness and knowledge and in the execution of the beautiful and the useful. Alas, even though these be true goods of man as man, they are still not safe unless by grace the Christian soul raise them up and ennoble them by dedicating their exercise to the glory and service of God. Here is the key moment in the transformation of joy, for all joy that is anchored in anything merely created is consigned to diminish, whereas, joy redounding from the service of God is an augmenting, everlasting treasure.

Unless a soul raises its moral joy to the level of the divine service, it is scarcely possible to avoid many negative faults: pride and presumption, which in turn lead to judging others in comparison to ourselves. When virtue is ostensibly sought for itself, it is really sought for self, and so it is hard not to seek it for its inherent pleasure, such that the labor increases while the pleasure decreases. The true good of virtue is not the joy it contains, but the perfection of the actions. Where these finalities are distorted it is not surprising that souls make little or no progress in perfection — they have already savored their reward. Moreover, this intoxicating drought leads them to self-conceit, to imagining that their subjective preferences are the best and that their very delight in the same is the proof of their perfection. How blind and deaf such souls grow to good counsel (Ascent III, 28), how incapable they become for family or community life which are centers of joy.

How blessed are those souls who order their services to God. They are freed from innumerable temptations and deceptions by the devil. They are productive in their undertakings, for their mind is free to focus on the work at hand, as they look not into the mirror of self-praise but to the goal of God’s glory from Whom they shall receive fitting praise at the proper time. By becoming poor in spirit they share in the glory and the joy of the kingdom of Christ. In their detachment they are meek and posses the earth with its goods in great freedom. God is well pleased with such children upon whom He can shower his delightful gifts and virtues.

Supernatural Joys

The fifth type of goods in which the human heart may rejoice are supernatural. Here, St. John of the Cross understands all the extraordinary God-given graces and charisms such as prophecy, healing, visions, consolations, the gift of tongues, the power of exorcisms, etc. Concerning the possession of such goods our Lord warned the disciples, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven” (Lk 10,20).

In these matter, our conduct should follow the rule given for the moral virtues: they are safe only when ordered to the service of God and the edification of our neighbor. Only, whereas we do need the virtues to grow in perfection, the individual does not need extraordinary charisms to attain his goal. Therefore, we do well to wish these gifts for the Church, but not for ourselves. St. Paul, witnessing the contentiousness and impurity occasioned by the desire for such supernatural gifts, exhorted the faithful to seek the greatest charism or gift of charity in which alone perfection consists (cf. 1 Cor 13).

Spiritual Joy

Spiritual goods are those, which, like grace, faith, hope and charity, “influence and aid the soul in divine things and in its intercourse with God and the communications of God with the soul” (Ascent III, 33). Here again, we encounter another paradox of the spiritual life, which helps explain the enigmatic quality of spiritual joy and why it is that worldly souls tend to flee from it. The greatest spiritual goods are of two kinds, namely: “The one kind is delectable, and the other, painful” (Ascent III.33). Now, the perfect access to the former is through the latter. The pain of labor precedes the harvest joy; the pain of labor precedes the joy of a child born; the pain of the Cross precedes the joy of the Resurrection. In perfect love, though, it is no longer a matter simply of succession, but of cotemporality: in perfect love (in this life) there is perfect joy even in the midst of pain, “for it is more blessed (joyful) to give than to receive” (Acts 20,35). It is only in the light of this truth that we can speak of the joy of the Son of God at His Incarnation and Birth, for the passage from omnipotence to powerlessness, from the infinite beauty of the Father’s Image to the lowly image of man, from the supreme eloquence of the eternal Word in the bosom of the Father to the woeful cries of the God-Child before the bitter cold and prickling straw in the manger can only be understood in the joyful light of the gift of love.

Every material good is diminished by sharing; every spiritual good is diminished by not sharing. Our possession and joy in spiritual goods can only be increased and eternalized by giving them to others in love. And this is most true of the spark of divine love that has been enkindled in our hearts. In the mystery of the Incarnation, God, “Who loved us first”, gave us His own Heart, His only begotten Son. This is the universal law of love and true joy: that one must give in order to come into possession. The joy of charity is only to be found in the mutual possession of lovers who become one spirit in and through their reciprocal gift of self.

The Christmas Gift and Joy

The divine offer of love is Incarnate in the manger. In order to respond we must believe in this unfathomable gift and desire union with Christ. This faith and this yearning (hope) for union (charity) with Christ (His first advent graces to us, which prepare and make the Christmas gift and joy possible) are so important, that St. Theresa of Avila declares that should a soul not believe or hope for this union with Christ already in this life, it would thereby close the doors to this grace of union with its particular joys in this life (Interior Castle, 5th Mansion, ch.1). In a word, it is our faith and longing, more than anything else, which dispose us for the Divine gift which is inseparable from joy.

Zachary doubted the angel’s word, looking at his own old age and impotency rather than to the timeless omnipotence of God. God’s mercy prevailed, and so in time Zachary could rejoice in the birth of the Baptist, sent to prepare our hearts for the coming of Christ. The humble Virgin of Nazareth believed and placed all her trust in Gabriel’s annunciation of the Divine Gift and so her spirit could immediately rejoice in God her Savior. St. Joseph’s anguish and sorrow were transformed into joyful possession, when he believed the angel’s words and accepted his mission and Mary (with Child) into his heart and home. Similarly, when the child leapt in her womb for joy, modest Elizabeth could rejoice at the gift, that the mother of her God should come to her.

And again, the poor, humble shepherds also received the gift of the “good news of great joy” with faith, and hastened with their gifts to see their Savior wrapped in swaddling clothes and lying in the manger.

In Jerusalem Simeon and Anna alone were deigned worthy of the Christmas joy, for they had made a complete gift of themselves to God, serving Him day and night in the temple where they set their hearts upon the consolation of Israel and not upon the things of this world. They alone saw the prophecy fulfilled: “The Lord Whom you seek will suddenly come to His temple” (Mal 3,1). How great and simple must have been their faith to recognize their God in His poverty as His poor parents made a gift of Him, presenting Him to the Father. Enlightened by the Spirit, Who sent them His angel, they came into the temple at the propitious moment, and taking the child into his arms in an ecstasy of joy Simeon exclaimed, “Mine eyes have seen Thy salvation”, and Anna “gave thanks to God” for the joyful gift of redemption.

And finally, in sublime detachment from all their worldly possessions and honors, the three Kings came from afar to worship the newborn king of the Jews. Nowhere in Scripture is greater joy expressed then when the Magi rediscover the angelic, guiding star as they continue their journey from Jerusalem: “When they saw the star, they rejoiced with exceedingly great joy!” (Mt 2,10). Consider their longing, matched by an incomparable poverty of spirit and humility: they have traveled a great distance to worship a divine king; they enter the modest home and behold the poor Christ Child and his poor Mother. Completely unabashed, they immediately prostrate themselves, giving themselves to the Child in spiritual adoration. Then they offer Him their other gifts: gold, fit for a king; frankincense, confessing Him to be their God; myrrh, acknowledge the inscrutable future mystery of His passion and death. By these gifts they consecrate all their possessions, purposes and lives to Christ. Thus they reciprocate perfectly the divine gift, and so were found worthy to be the first fruits of the nations, and to share in the first fruits of Christ’s joy.

So now we know the way to Christmas joy. By heeding the voice of the angel announcing the message of great joy, by hastening with the gift of ourselves we will be disposed to received the gift of His Incarnate Love. Let us not fear to set aside all other values in this world, for He can never be exceeded in generosity. In the measure that we give, we shall receive His joy, a heaping measure, pressed down and overflowing. In the mutual gift of love is the secret of Christmas Joy. Behold, the Christ Child stretches out its arms to each one of us and whispers into our heart: “If you will give yourself to Me, then you shall be Mine, and I shall be yours, and there shall be no end to our joy!”

Fr. William Wagner, ORC

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