What makes the saints so appealing? Is it the great penances they perform? Your mileage may vary, but I’ve heard stories of St. Francis rolling around in a bush of thorns and go “now that’s something I want to try!” Is it their great charity? Bill Gates has probably given more to charity than most of the saints in the 20th century combined, yet hundreds of years from now we aren’t likely to have orders dedicated to emulating his virtues.
I think what makes the saints truly appealing is what the Third Sunday after Easter talks about, that of joy. The saints went through extraordinary trials, but they were always joyful. Joy does not mean happiness, as Blessed Theresa of Calcutta and St. John of the Cross both spoke about extended periods of time where they could not find happiness, but they still found joy. The propers of today give us reasons why we should be joyful.
One of our primary reasons for joy is discussed in the Collect, and it is the fact that God shines the light of his truth on his children who go astray. It is often assumed that we Christians think ourselves superior because of our baptism and salvation. Sometimes we respond that we aren’t perfect, just forgiven. That’s true but not the real issue. Everyone is forgiven when they repent of their offenses sincerely. What makes Christianity special is that God has revealed Himself to man, not just to get nailed to a cross, but to give us the path back to the Father, back to righteousness, and yes, one day perfection.
That’s one of the primary differences between Christianity and the world. Both offer forgiveness, but only Christianity offers you something better than forgiveness. Christianity offers you God’s grace so that, over time, you will need forgiveness less and less. Eventually, in heaven, we won’t need it at all. This is what Paul is talking about when he says that having been justified by faith; we now have peace with God. (Romans 5:1) The peace God offers us is assurance that, if we accept His grace, it is possible to live a life no longer a slave to sin.
As with all things, there is a catch. You can’t just take this joy and then live your life like nothing has happened. If this joy is the greatest thing in the world, shouldn’t we look to do whatever is possible to not only obtain it, but have it rule every aspect of our lives? In the epistle, St. Paul gives us practical advice on how to make that a reality. While the examples are numerous, they can be summed up as be subject to all and to be at peace in the world. By being subject he doesn’t mean keep your mouth shut and always smile and say yes, whatever you say. The true point of subjecting yourself to another is to see their well-being advanced. So when he says be subject to others, it means put yourself always at their service, according to your state in life and theirs. Do this no matter the situation, and be at peace with it. Why? Because when you are at peace with the things of this world, you can focus on the things of heaven. That doesn’t mean you have to like everything. It just means you shouldn’t let it consume your worries or get to you.
The second great promise of joy is that once you have it, nobody can take it from you, and Christ makes this point in the Gospel. He will send the Holy Spirit to give us joy, and nobody can take away that joy. Why? Because that joy is God himself. Nobody is stronger than God! The only thing we can do is choose to accept it, or choose to walk away.
To get an understanding of how important this is, imagine if you were guaranteed that, at the very worse, you would always be upper-middle class financially, and all your financial needs would be taken care of. You wouldn’t be rich, but you’d always have the ability to save 20% of your income, and all your bills would be paid. Do you think that would make you more at peace than your neighbor, who has struggled to make it to the middle class, doesn’t have enough to save, and could lose everything the minute his job is outsourced? Both men are holy, and capable of holiness. Yet it’s clear one is to be less troubled, and have greater freedom (should he decide to pursue it!) to devote himself to greater charity, leisure, and prayer.
A similar dynamic is going on when it comes to joy for the Christian. We aren’t given a shortcut to holiness, or certainty that we will always be holier. We are given an assurance that if we want it, that peace and stability God’s grace provides will always be available to us, and that no problem, no matter how grave, can strip it from us. The only thing that could cause us to lose it is if we decided it wasn’t worth it, and chose something else. While our capitalist society says fear of loss breeds the possibility of success, it also just as easily keeps people from success. (Look at the psychological impact of long-term unemployment for a clear example of this.) So while we aren’t given a surefire ticket to heaven, we can take comfort in the fact that God provides us a path and that if we walk on that path, we won’t be led astray. Can the world offer a similar guarantee?
This is why joy is so important. We’ve been given an incredible gift, a gift far beyond anything the world can give us. While earthly systems will come and go, provide for us and fail us, God promises to always, in some manner provide for us so that we can get to heaven. If joy is missing from that message, that message is worthless. What’s the point of heaven if it isn’t true and never-ending joy? When we Christians preach the Gospel by our actions (and make no mistake, we are even if we don’t realize it), are we telling others this is a good life to live? Do they see us as worthy of emulation? We find courage and solace in the examples of the saints because of their joy. Are we an example of that joy to those around us? These saints had access to the same sacraments as we do, most of the same prayers we have, and the same opportunities for holiness. Will the individual we meet on the street, after meeting us, ask “what is it about Christians like them that are so appealing?” If that answer is no, we need to figure out why, and today’s liturgy is as good a place to start as any.