By Mary Morrell | Contributing Editor
On the first Christmas, the angel of the Lord appeared to the shepherds, assuring them, “I bring you tidings of great joy;” news bringing them not an ephemeral experience of happiness, but a deep, abiding experience of peace and an assurance of God’s love.
“Joy is the air Christians breathe,” Pope Francis has said, and as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, “it cannot be purchased or forced.” This truth is often difficult to remember in light of a contemporary culture’s secular Christmas, beginning mid-year in an effort to raise spirits and encourage spending.
For Msgr. Sam A. Sirianni, rector of St. Robert Bellarmine Co-Cathedral, Freehold, Advent and the Christmas season are fruitful times to help parishioners come to a fuller understanding of the meaning of Christian joy, since joy is inherent in this holy time of the Church.
“Christian joy is rooted in hope, and our hope is in Christ and in a sense that life has meaning,” Msgr. Sirianni stressed.
Reflecting on the lessons to be found in the growing trend of cookie-cutter holiday movies, Msgr. Sirianni pointed out that these feel-good scripts always work out in the end, and viewers are always able to see the conclusion.
“The reality is that life doesn’t always work out the way we expect, and we might not see the conclusion of our works or our hopes,” Msgr. Sirianni said. “But if I don’t always see the results of my efforts, I can still be joyful,” he suggested. The key is trust in God.
Father Jerome Guld, parochial vicar of St. Joseph Parish, Toms River, offered, “Living in joy is a gift from God. … Our choice and responsibility is to recognize his gifts in all their forms. Those things that appear to rob us of joy and satisfaction may be the very gifts of God which are meant to humble us, bring us closer to him, and fill us with joy.”
Since it is human nature for people to get caught up in their woundedness, Msgr. Sirianni said, there are a number of anxieties and sufferings that serve as obstacles to joy, among them fear, self-doubt, deep-seated anger and the experience of change. These powerful emotions can erode trust and hope in God. When people are stuck in those emotions, grappling with how they impact the person and those around them, it’s important to begin a process of reconciliation.
“When we seek to be forgiven, we are really trying to let go of something. This takes time, it takes prayer, it may even take counseling,” he said, pointing out, “It’s not so much a question of does God forgive us, because he does, but can we forgive ourselves.”
“Forgiveness in difficult situations always frees a person from some bondage, which constrains a person’s spirit,” said Father Guld, who recently facilitated two parish forgiveness workshops in which participants reflected on learning to trust, forgive and move forward, and to place all in God’s hands.
“Any sort of bondage to that which is not from God is going to get in the way of joy,” he said. “Many people have experienced both a spiritual and even physical lifting when a long-sought moment of forgiveness arrives.”
Msgr. Sirianni’s strong belief in the power of forgiveness can be seen as he speaks to parishioners weekly in a YouTube series, sitting at a desk over which the word C.O.F.F.E.E. is stenciled on the wall. Below it is the sub-title, Christ Offers Forgiveness for Everyone Everywhere.
This simple acronym and message of forgiveness is a reminder that God forgives and so should his Church, Msgr. Sirianni explained. “It reminds us of the business we are in, and it reminds me of the times I’ve been forgiven and of times when I need to be forgiven, so I can walk with people who also need to be forgiven.”
He also recalled that, over the years, he has often heard from parishioners who felt like Christmas just wasn’t the same for them anymore, usually because of some loss, like poor health, a death, aging, employment or simply children growing up and moving away, which brings people face to face with the reality that “the Christmas of our youth won’t be with us forever.”
Change affects everyone, Msgr. Sirianni acknowledged, but there’s something to be said for the grace of gratitude. “For myself, I need to focus on who’s around the table today,” he reflected. “While we may not always feel happy, we can always be joy-filled. The foundation to our joy is the belief that ‘God loves me.’ When Jesus was born, God was telling humanity, ‘You are worth it.’”
Still, there is often a sense of the elusiveness of joy.
“God does not try to make joy difficult, or hold it high over our heads just out of reach,” Father Guld said. “The world, on the other hand, is always distracting us and pulling us one way or another, preventing us from grasping the true joy God offers. We are often convinced that forgiveness will be both difficult and unsatisfying. On the contrary, mercy is the very essence of Jesus’ mission and Gospel of reconciliation, and therefore is always not only worth the effort, but also adds to life’s joy.”