When exiting the historically African American Saint Sabina’s Catholic Church on the south side of Chicago, one cannot miss the huge imposing plaque that hangs above the doorway that challenges: “Discipleship will cost. Are you willing?” I suggest that those words are a fine summary of today’s Gospel. Those words are indeed worthy of our serious consideration as we prepare to celebrate the One who calls us to such mature discipline, but who has gone before us providing an example and spiritual resources to fulfill the mandate. But this call is to no miserable, grinding, painful self-deprecation! Rather it is a summons and mandate to JOY (Phil. 4:4).
In today’s Second reading, St. Paul provides a series of ethical admonitions that rests especially on the view of Christ and his coming. The Church highlights the importance of JOY as a dimension of discipleship by naming this Third Sunday of Advent as “Gaudete Sunday,” from the first word of the entrance song in Latin, “Gaudete in Domino semper. Iterum dico: Gaudete! … Dominus prope.” “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice…. The Lord is at hand” (Phil 4:4-5). But all too often we have seen the “ethical” or “moral” dimensions of our faith as a set of limits and demands that take all the fun out of life and leave us to live life limited by rigidness and rigor. But nothing could be further from the truth!
During my doctoral studies at Marquette University under the tutelage of the world renowned moralist, Daniel C. Maguire, I learned that joy is in fact a moral mandate! My favorite exposé on joy is Maguire’s chapter, “The Song of Joy” in his The Moral Core of Judaism and Christianity: Reclaiming the Revolution. He opens the chapter citing the famous Jewish saying: “We will have to give account on the judgement day of every good thing which we refused to enjoy when we might have done so” (Kiddushin 66d). This saying points to a deep question that confronts the establishment of any moral code, namely what exactly is the standard of measure (norm) that motivates people to be good and to do good? Is it the fear of punishment, or is it a vision of the conditions that create wholeness, peace, justice, and the reverential care for God’s creation?
In responding to this question Maguire rightfully asserts that joy is “the consummation of morality.” This choice of joy as a normative standard by which to measure morality, sets the coarse for one’s personal behavior, but also a direction for politics, economics, societal relations, care for creation — and more. “If joy is what ought to be, then it enters the precincts of social conscience, with prophecy; justice, and hope in its close-knit entourage. Healthy joy cannot be full while sisters and brothers are in misery. . . . every person must opt, implicitly or explicitly, for the normative normalcy of either joy or misery, and the results are massive.”
In the interplay between today’s readings, we see this truth concerning the difference of opting for joy as the standard of our morality makes. In the first reading, Zephaniah sets out a moral vision. He reports that God, having removed all those things John the Baptist urges people to drop, and more besides, will respond with joy to such conversions: “The Lord, your God … will rejoice over you with gladness, / and renew you in his love, / he will sing joyfully because of you, / as one sings at festivals.” In the Gospel, John the Baptist challenges his audience to actions — that will make life more joyful — indeed possible for many at the margins, while also restoring integrity of life to the perpetrators of injustices. The second reading accentuates the Source of empowerment for our conversion of heart and our capacity for being good and doing good — even, perhaps when the demands of discipleship seem to place us at great risk. But what does all of this mean for us today? What does joyful Christian discipleship require of us today?
For the past two weeks (December 2 -14) the 24th Conference of the Parties to the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change
(COP 24) met in Katowice, Poland. The Conference
is the main decision-making body of the Convention
, and garners international cooperation toward tackling the impacts of climate change. On December 3, representing the Holy See at the High Level meeting, Vatican Secretary of State, Cardinal Pietro Parolin, asserted: “It is becoming clearer that climate change is more a moral issue
rather than a technical one.” In Laudato Si
‘, Pope Francis’ indicated that “strategies for a solution demand an integrated approach to combating poverty, restoring dignity to the excluded, and at the same time protecting nature.”
Cardinal Parolin emphasized the urgent moral responsibility of everyone to act in light of the dire conditions unmistakably evidenced in the October 6, 2018 Special Report, especially concerning human dimensions of climate change.
The COP 24 meetings are now concluded. Its mandate requires action by all people of good will. Are you and I willing to risk discipleship, living the joy of the Gospel?
“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I will say, Rejoice…. The Lord is at hand” (Phil 4:4-5)
Professor of Catholic Theological Ethics
The Erica and Harry John Family Endowed Chair in Catholic Ethics