The words of the Bible we hear on Sundays are a translation from ancient languages. In the case of St Paul, he wrote his letters using the ‘street language’ of Asia Minor, called koiné Greek. I mention this because the English translation we listen to only approximates the original, and sometimes what we hear is not the best translation. Today’s short second reading, from Paul’s first letter to the Thessalonians, is an example of this.
We heard from the very end of his letter his farewell words which began, ‘Be happy at all times …’ If this was accurate (which it isn’t), we could rightly think Paul was a naively optimistic and excessively cheerful person, because who, honestly, can be happy all the time? As it is, this translation is a bit off key. A better way of translating Paul’s original words would be to say, ‘Always be joyful …’
Joy and happiness are not the same things. Happiness is an outcome of something; and it is unpredictable. We all know that it is psychologically impossible to be happy all the time. In fact, there are circumstances where it would be downright wrong to be happy. But joy is a different thing. Rather than being an outcome, joy is an action we undertake. Joy has a purpose to it, by being joyful we are pursuing something that is good. And joy is something we can practice, even in the most dire of circumstances.
So, let’s hear Paul’s words more accurately today, ‘Always be joyful …’ and going on, ‘pray constantly; and in every situation give thanks; this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.’
Now we are in a better place to ask the question: why this joyfulness, prayerfulness and thanksgiving? Well, Paul is looking towards the second coming of Jesus Christ, at the end of time. And he is wanting his Thessalonian friends to be ready for that time. These qualities of joy, prayer and thanks are the dispositions he thinks are the ones we most need to prepare for Christ’s coming into our lives. They are the dispositions God most wants for us.
We see them in the first coming of Jesus, at his Nativity, just over a week away in commemoration. The shepherds experienced these things, so did the Magi. Mary and Joseph knew of this joyfulness, prayerfulness and thanksgiving intimately at the birth of God’s Son. And with hope and trust, we can know and experience the same.
Think of those words spoken by Our Blessed Mother, when she first learnt of her pregnancy with Jesus. ‘My soul glorifies the Lord, my spirit rejoices in God, my Saviour. He looks on his servant in her lowliness; henceforth all ages will call me blessed.’ Mary was echoing the words of Isaiah, as we heard in our first reading today, ‘I exult for joy in the Lord, my soul rejoices in my God, for he has clothed me in the garments of salvation…’
Rejoicing is the best disposition of a Christian. The joy of remembering the first coming of God among us, so that we can joyfully await his return, is the promise that God is with us, no matter what. Our lives might be just a pregnant as Mary’s, and always joyful with Paul.
As our opening prayer put it, on this 3rd Sunday of Advent, Gaudate – rejoicing – Sunday:
O God, who see how your people faithfully await the feast of the Lord’s Nativity,
enable us, we pray, to attain the joys of so great a salvation
and to celebrate them always with solemn worship and glad rejoicing.