The Gospel readings for the day are some of the loveliest of the season, and all focus on joy. Joy is different than happiness. Joy has a kind of purity to it. Joy lifts us up. Joy is accompanied by a sense of peace in the very depths of one’s being. Joy is turned outward, where we feel connected to one another. A friend of mine recently became a young grandmother; the look on her face in holding the newborn baby was total joy, as she delighted in the existence of another human being. This baby, here and now, perfect in its being. Joy feels like a gift, the way that holding a newborn infant is always a beautiful gift from above, one that reminds us of the very goodness of existence itself.
The thing about joy, like the deep interior peace described in the second reading from Philippians, a “peace that passes understanding,” is that we cannot produce it for ourselves. I can’t decide in the morning, today, I am going to feel joy, or today, I plan on having a deep interior peace at four o’ clock. Peace and joy are gifts, consolations given by God. Like when as a child we unwrapped a Christmas gift and received something wonderful that we didn’t ask for, and maybe didn’t even know that we wanted, joy arises when we encounter the surprising gifts that God offers us, and we say yes to the unexpected.
Aquinas says that joy follows as a fruit of love. For Aquinas, love is not just a feeling, but a participation in friendship with God, an ongoing relationship of love with God, one that also helps us to be better friends with other human beings. Our love for God naturally spills over into loving other people in our lives. Love is also about concrete and specific actions: willing the good of another person and undertaking actions to try to benefit the other.
In today’s gospel reading, Jesus tells us some of the kinds of actions that we ought to undertake if we are to live well. We should be honest and satisfied with what material goods we are given. We should always willingly share what we have with others—an extra coat or extra food for those in need. Paul in the Philippians tells us to be kind, and to ask God for what we need with humility but expectation that God wants to give us what we most deeply desire.
This sharing of ourselves is the key to joy: when we are always seeking more and more for ourselves, the focus is on what is missing–what do I think that I need that I don’t have? When we notice that we enjoy abundance and give out of this sense of abundance, the sharing of a life with others reverberates back to us in the form of joy.
Joy, it turns out, is always shared, and never belongs to myself alone. Even if I am sitting alone in the quiet and dark, near a beautiful lit Christmas tree, praying for someone, and a feeling of joy wells up in me, that joy is about a connection to God and to another person. Love connects us, and joy is like a flame that lights up from this connection.
John the Baptist also speaks about fire, but in terms of the chaff that is burned away. Years ago, I used to think about this fiery image as somehow violent, but in considering the farming metaphor further, it no longer seems so. After gathering in a crop of wheat, the good edible part has to be separated from the chaff, which is the portion of the wheat that is not edible and no good. The chaff stands in the way of the wheat being usable. After the chaff is separated, a farmer might burn it to dispose of the waste. We might imagine the way that a fire in a fireplace is beautiful just to look at, that a farmer might watch all that chaff burn away, maybe taking a contemplative moment to be grateful for the harvest.
John points us to a future where God preserves the best of what is in us, and all the chaff-like parts of who we are are gone so that only the best remains: that core element of ourselves that is itself pure love. Of course, none of us are there yet, but if we flip the metaphor we can think of it like this: we only get to the good wheat if we are willing to grow the stuff that has the chaff, too. God grows up the wheat and the weeds together, and the wheat itself has the nutritious grain and the chaff together, too. This is like how we are as human beings, a real mix of good grain and chaff.
But the promise is that God is separating them out, and at work in our world for a place where the good grain is what remains: a world where we share our food and our coats so that everyone is warm and fed; one where we have personal and political peace; and a world where can delight in one another, love one another, and say in our hearts: I take delight in your very existence. And so this is the reason for our Advent joy.