Advent is upon us. It is a good season in which to reflect upon the joy of the Gospel. It seems that through Pope Francis’ example, we are being given a personal example of the kind of joyful and happy visage we present to the world when we have been blessed by an encounter with love. This is not the gospel of reproach, condemnation, superiority and disapproval that has sometimes been falsely communicated by Christians of all denominations. This is the Gospel of hope, of the possibility of peace among neighbours, of healing, redemption and salvation. It begins its expression in the joy of a person and spreads and expands to become the joy of a people.
The joy spoken of by Pope Francis in his encyclical Evangelii Gaudium is not some “manic happiness” to be experienced in an ecstatic state of solitude and enclosure, but it is the joy of friendship which speaks of persons living with one another and sharing the good news of God’s love and the way in which it brings forth justice in the world.
We cannot forget that the “joy” spoken of through the prophets is the joy we find in a just community. It is always described as the joy of a people. How can our joy be complete when our neighbour is suffering an injustice? How can it be complete when we are denied justice? It is the redemption of “the people” and the manifestation of the whole people as a context in which we find lasting joy.
The people of God, which we are invited to consider as all of humanity, move together towards the future. It is difficult to imagine a group of isolated “individuals” experiencing the kind of joy we read about in Scripture. Francis affirms this notion in his encyclical, saying God’s love liberates us “from our narrowness and absorption.”
My observation is that it is difficult to maintain a connection with this love if we are living in the midst of a dysfunctional and unjust society – whether we are among the richest or the poorest of the people who form our “community.” As Francis says, “For if we have received the love which restores meaning to our lives, how can we fail to share that love with others?” This confirms that it is within community that we experience the joy spoken of in the Gospel.
This advent, Christians anticipate the “tidings of comfort and joy” that will be celebrated as Christmas – the humble entry of God’s love into our world in the form of a person. The particularity of that person, the legacy of Jesus of Nazareth as we have received it, begs us to notice the importance God places on justice. We can encounter this justice when we allow our gaze to peer beyond simple “instructions” on living the human life to grasp the spirituality of Jesus and to let that spirituality shape our own.
Jesus did not teach that justice is “winning” in a contest against others, as so much of our competitive and aggressive mindset would suggest to us. Justice cannot flourish unless it comes from a place of compassion and concern for others. This suggests attitudes of peace, generosity, cooperation, and shared responsibility for development of just social structures.
The reign of God is not described as a capitalist utopia. It is not a consequence of “trickle-down economics.” People locked in to the naive and ideologically driven belief that one day the rich will release their hold on the world’s wealth and willingly share it with all of their neighbours would like us to believe that the tenets of capitalism have been blessed by God in the same way we once believed in the divine right of kings.
In fact, the reign of God promises to be surprising. As announced through the prophets of old and then through the Gospel, it will be the definitive end of forms of economic, military and governmental aggression against the poor. It will be love made visible as justice.
That is an advent hope to embrace.