"Do Not Be Afraid"
'Sunrise at the Desert Retreat House"
When I was a parish priest, one of the members of my congregation decided that I didn't smile enough, so whenever she saw me she'd look me straight in the eyes and tell me to "smile." At first, I would just slap a big smile on my face when she told me to do so, but after a while her campaign began to annoy me, so one day I asked her: "Why do you always want and expect to see me smiling?' She told me that Christians (especially priests) are supposed to be happy so they should look like they are.
I think I was so annoyed with that well-meaning parishioner's efforts to get me to smile all the time because I don't for a second believe that we should always be happy- joyful, yes, but not always happy.
There is a big difference between being happy and being joyful.
If you look at the biblical texts in both the Hebrew Scriptures as well as the New Testament, you almost never see the word "happy;" but the word "joy" is used consistently. In fact, Saint Paul tells one of his congregations:
Rejoice in the Lord always, I say it again, rejoice!
Christians in those early days were being persecuted, tortured, sent to be chewed up by lions. Was Saint Paul telling the people that they should always be happy? "Have a big smile on your face when they throw you into the lion's den?" I hardy think so. Instead he was telling them to be joyful - in all circumstances of life (even when life is at its worst), be joyful.
We experience "happiness" when we feel content, when life seems to be working out for us- the job is going well, there's enough cash in the account, everyone is healthy. But, of course life doesn't always work out that way. From time to time every single one of us has personal problems, relationship problems, financial issues, health issues. On top of that we live in a world that is often very scary and quite chaotic at times- terrorism and torture, beheadings and Ebola flood our minds on a day to day basis.
Some may think that the opposite of joy is "sadness," but the fact is that opposite of joy is "fear." As I see it, there are plenty of times when I might not feel happy, plenty of reasons not to have a big smile, but I honestly believe that I can indeed always be joyful because the bottom line is that I do not need to be afraid of anything in life, come what may. In fact, I don't even have to be afraid of death.
At this time of year I call to mind the beautiful poetry of the Christmas story. Shepherds are sound asleep in the Bethlehem hills as a baby is born in a manger. Suddenly the skies are lit up by angelic spirits dancing in the cosmos waking the shepherds from their slumber. The sleepy-eyed shepherds are filled with fear and dread and so the angels sing a love song to them- a song to calm their fears:
Do not be afraid, we bring good news of great joy!
The angels do not tell the fear-filled shepherds to be happy- they tell them to be joyful because of the good news that "God" abides, love abides, and in the end, love will win the day.
You certainly don't have to be a Christian to hear the song of the angels. They dance their cosmic dance and sing their tender song of love to all humankind -to all our sleepy, fearful hearts. They tell us that we don't ever have to be afraid in this wilderness of life: "God" abides, love abides, and in the end "love" will win the day.
I just realized that I am not smiling right now, but I am in fact very joyful!
I say it again, rejoice!