The path to joy


I was recently asked whether I thought joy was a virtue, and gave an answer that I must have first read in Thomas Aquinas: that joy is not a virtue like the theological virtues of faith, hope, and love, but rather a fruit of loving. It’s when we practice the theological virtues that joy blossoms, much like a well-tended plant that has been watered, given the right amount of light and darkness, and good soil.

John the Baptist in today’s gospel gives those who are listening the path to find joy:
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.” (Luke 3: 11-14)

In other words, share one’s material goods, give away what one has, and don’t take more than your fair wages, because life is not about money or the goods that money can bring. It is in giving rather than in receiving that we find happiness.

However, John the Baptist is only the preparation for Jesus. He is the one who comes before Jesus. John adds that he is not even worthy to loosen the thongs on the sandals of Jesus. John expresses a deep humility before Jesus.

Jesus is the source of this true joy. Even being a virtuous and responsible person as John the Baptist describes is not enough for spiritual joy, though being good can bring a kind of ordinary happiness.

It’s the difference between the pleasure of being happy with one’s own goodness, and delighting in the existence of another human being. It’s the difference between simply giving another person the goods that they need, and seeing the face of Christ in the faces of others.

As Christians, yes, we ought to be good and responsible people. But this is only preparing the way for the Lord to enter in. Paul also speaks of being kind, not being anxious, and being authentic before God in our prayers (Phil 4:4-7). All these actions prepares the way for the Lord who is to come, and they prepare us in hope. They are good practices. But eventually, it’s God action itself that brings us joy and the “peace that passes all understanding,” a peace that is born not of our own efforts, but a grace from God.

This Advent, we can practice kindness, honesty, share our goods, and be authentic with God. We can also wait in hope and expectation, knowing that God desires to give us the peace and joy that is the sign of His presence among us.