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  • Writer's pictureFr. Austin

Unexpected Joy

When I was a younger priest at another parish, I used to visit a couple and bring Holy Communion to the wife. They were from Nigeria, and the woman, Angela, was severely arthritic.  The husband, Valentine, would dutifully remind me of my need to visit each month, and I would make the short trip to their apartment about one mile from the church. Angela was always sitting on their couch, having been carried there by her husband. Her body was shriveled, her eyesight was poor, and she had very little to say.  It was clear that she was often in pain, but she was always smiling for my visit and patiently let Valentine do all the talking.

On one visit, I remember him telling me about their life in Nigeria, about their “lazy, freeloading son,” and about how he spends his days with his wife. He tended to her every need, as was necessary because of her broken condition.  It was a lot of work, and he casually spoke about the suffering that was a part of their life together.  At one point, he said, “But in the suffering, there is great joy, Father.” And then he nodded and smiled.

It was one of those little statements that we often say as people of faith, I thought. Like, “Everything happens for a reason,” or “He’s in a better place” – one of those pious assertions that we will say that sound kind of Scriptural. I listened to him, heard him say that about suffering, and then asked sincerely, “What do you mean?”  I wanted him to explain how he found joy in the midst of the suffering that his wife and he experienced. I needed to know.

He told me that, indeed, it was hard to see his wife as she was now: broken, bent, hurting, and needy.  Sure.  However, in that neediness, the Lord was calling forth tenderness from him – tenderness that he didn’t think he had, tenderness that he never thought he could show. Through Angela’s hardships, and his share in them as her husband, he was learning to see the Face of Jesus in the midst of suffering – and he would never have seen it had it not been for that suffering. To be sure, they didn’t ask for it, and would certainly have liked to see it alleviated, but without this particular experience that God had dealt them (and he was sure this was God’s doing), they would not be the same Christians that they were. That suffering was a gift; and in that gift, they found joy.

And he truly believed that. So do I because they shared that with me. It was one of the greatest blessings of my priesthood – from an old Nigerian couple in a small apartment in Middle River.

Friends, today is Gaudete Sunday – that day amid Advent’s spirit of waiting and longing when we don our gay apparel and respond to God’s call to “be joyful.” This is the meaning of this particular Sunday, and it is our duty to be joyful.

Even in the middle of all the terrible suffering, misery, and uncertainty that exists in our lives and in our world, Jesus, through His Church, bids us to be joyful. Why are we joyful? Because the Lord is near. Even with everything that could be going wrong in your life, everything that is going wrong in the world, even through the toughest struggles that we can face, the lord is near; and we are called to see that and rejoice.

But it is not self-evident, is it? How can I be joyful when depression is a regular part of my life? How can I be joyful when I am afraid to turn on the TV, lest I hear of school shootings, drug problems, failing economies, and war? How can I be joyful when so many things seem to weigh me down? This is the struggle that every Christian faces – that we are redeemed and yet still experience the effects of our sin and the Fall.

John the Baptist comes to us again this week. With all the excitement and expectation surrounding his ministry, people were sure that he was the Messiah, that he would deliver them from their hardship.  He was the one they could get excited about.  However, today John is clear that this is not so. He is not the one; but, if they open their eyes now they might just catch a glimpse of Him – right there!

“There is one among you whom you do not recognize,the one who is coming after me,” he says.  In other words, as these people – the scribes, pharisees, elders, and poor folks from all over – as they stood there, right there in their midst was the One whom they were expecting.  The Lord is truly near, and they didn’t even know it.  Eventually, they would come to know Him, and then make their decision to follow; but right now, they were too caught up in their own projects, their own struggles, their own expectations.

This is Advent, friends!  This is us! We are here, perhaps worried about all the things I have mentioned.  Perhaps we even consider ourselves to be suffering.  That may well be.  But, I am convinced now, like Valentine and Angela, that there is joy in suffering.  What is God calling out of you in that suffering?  What is He calling out of those around you?  That is where you will encounter the Face of Jesus. That is where you will discover true joy. Do you really believe that?

Jesus has saved us.  Through His Cross, His suffering, and His resurrection, we are given the grace to experience that mercy, love, and healing that God wills for His children. If we really believe that, then there is cause for great joy.  Open your eyes now.  There is One among us whom we might not always recognize, who stands ready to lead us into that joy.

God’s goodness often comes in unexpected ways: in a Stranger in a crowd, in a Host at Mass, in a Child crying in a stable, or even in an immigrant couple in an apartment in Middle River. And discovering that goodness brings His joy.

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