For anyone who has watched one of those Nordic crime series that are popular these days will have noticed how stilted the translations can be from Danish or Norwegian or Swedish. Sometimes, the subtitles might be a grammatically correct translation into English, but they simply don’t always get the sense of things right.
We have an example of a misaligned translation in our readings today. According to the translation we just heard from the Letter to the Philippians, Paul said to the people, “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord; I repeat, what I want is your happiness.” This is not, however, a good translation of the Greek Paul was speaking. A better translation of what he said is this: “Rejoice in the Lord always; I say again, rejoice.”
On the surface, we may not get too fussed about the difference between being happy and rejoicing. They are certainly related, and in our ordinary speech we might even use them interchangeably. The spell-check feature on my computer offers each word as a synonym of the other.
But Paul was offering quite a precise point in calling on the Church faithful at Philippi to ‘rejoice in the Lord always’, and we can see this with a fairly easy test. Everyone knows that you can’t be happy all of the time; you simply can’t. Sometimes we are sad, or angry, or pensive, or contented, or excited; and rightly so. These are all legitimate and healthy and very human feelings we properly have. Happiness is one such mode we might find ourselves in, but it is not something we would, or even could, sustain all the time.
That’s because happiness is a consequence – an outcome, and not an action or way of being. Sure, we all want to be happy, and hope that happiness might be our final goal in life. But ‘being happy’ will not get us there; you can’t practice happiness; either you have it or you don’t. Joy, on the other hand, is precisely something we can each practice in our lives, because rejoicing is something we can do along the way, and not simply some end product to be achieved. So, when Paul called upon his friends to rejoice always, he was encouraging them to take up a way of living in the Lord that would bring hope and love.
This is why he went on to say to them not to be worried, as God will provide for the things that we need. John the Baptist made a similar point to the many people who came to him asking what they were to do (and not how they should feel). He encouraged the well-off to be generous givers; he told the tax collectors to be fair in their dealings; and he admonished the soldiers to be fair in their dealings with others. All of these doing things can be done joyfully and open heartedly; to none of them would we necessarily assign the word ‘happy’.
We live in an environment where the pursuit of happiness is considered the primary sign of wellbeing. We are – in very, very many ways – enticed towards happiness, as if it is the true and only measure of a life well lived. This is a lie we can all get caught up in telling ourselves. Who doesn’t want to be happy? But ‘practicing happiness’ is not going to achieve happiness. Jesus came, that we might share in his life joyfully and gladly. May we orient our lives towards the joy that the Lord alone can give us. No matter how we feel – sad or happy, content or dissatisfied – we can all practice joyfulness. For when the Lord is in our midst, then we will have no more evil to fear, for joy will be our way through life.
Archbishop Peter A Comensoli20 December 2021
CatholicCare Victoria01 December 2021