Commentary by Fr Donagh O’Shea OP, www.goodnews.ie
Jesus said, “Just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life. For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil. For all who do evil hate the light and do not come to the light, so that their deeds may not be exposed. But those who do what is true come to the light, so that it may be clearly seen that their deeds have been done in God.”
This fourth Sunday of Lent is known as ‘Laetare Sunday’. In Latin laetare (rejoice) is the first word of the entrance antiphon: “Rejoice, Jerusalem….” Joy is the theme of today’s Liturgy.
Can joy be turned on and off? Can you experience joy just because today is the 4th Sunday of Lent? “He who binds to himself a joy / Doth the winged life destroy,” said William Blake. And besides, what an unlikely season for it! you might say. You must kiss it as it flies, said Blake; you cannot arrange it.
“At night there are tears, but joy comes with dawn,” (Psalm 29:5). You can no more arrange for joy to descend on you than you can arrange for the sun to rise. Joy is a fruit of God’s Spirit, not a feeling that can be turned on and off. “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control” (Galatians 5:22). Notice that St Paul places it directly after love, so close is it to the heart of the Faith. It is a gift, not a purchase.
“God loved us with so much love…. It is through grace that you are saved,” (2nd reading). “God loved the world so much that he gave his only Son…” (today’s gospel reading). God loves us: this is the source of our joy, whether we actually experience it or not at the moment. Quite often we see the Christian faith diminished to a morality, an account of what we should do: how we should love God and our neighbour…. But St John wrote, “In this is love, not that we loved God but that God loved us” (1 John 4:10). “We love because God first loved us” (1John 4:19). This is the source of our joy.
Happiness is conditional: it depends on good fortune, pleasant surroundings, congenial friends, a good digestion…. But joy is unconditional. It depends on nothing. You can even experience joy in times of unhappiness. It is like a ray of sunshine that suddenly penetrates the clouds, a reminder that it is always there, whether you see it or not. Such is God’s love. Even when we are at our worst, God still loves us. “God loved us when we were not, and when we were His foes,” said Meister Eckhart. “Whether we go near or far, God never goes far away but always stands nearby; and even if He cannot remain within, He never goes further than outside the door.” There is an Irish proverb, Is gaire cabhair Dé ná an doras, “God’s help is nearer than the door.”