I had the fortune of knowing an extraordinary woman who never seemed to lose the smile on her face. Those who knew her fondly called her Nang Poping. A teacher, principal and later superintendent of public schools, she was highly respected and deeply loved by the community. She had a big family, and she was clearly their source of strength and the center of unity especially in their times of crises. She was actively involved in church projects, as well as in her own personal works of charity.
For this she earned the endearing moniker of Mother of Perpetual Help Incarnate, since everyone who approached her was never left unaided. In her last years, she had a bad fall which kept her in the wheel chair and in constant pain for the rest of her life. Her condition did not stop her from continuing to help people with the same dedication. I would visit her now and then with the intention of cheering her up, only to find myself being uplifted and inspired. Once I asked how she could maintain such a positive mind and joyous disposition despite her condition and pain. Giving me her familiar smile, she answered, “God is with me, Father. He is my strength and my joy.”
The third Sunday of Advent is also known as Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday because the entire liturgy bursts with great and irrepressible joy. It opens with an exploding antiphon, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say, rejoice. Indeed, the Lord is near.”
The readings echo the same theme repeatedly. “The desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers, and rejoice with joyful song…” (first reading) “Make your hearts firm, because the coming of the Lord is at hand.” (second reading) “Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind regain their sight, the lame walk… and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” (gospel)
Joy is all over the liturgical celebration. Even the ponderous purple color of Advent gives way to a lighter and brighter tone of rose or pink.
And the reason for this extraordinary joy is clear – “The Lord is near.” In the first reading, Isaiah exhorts the exiled Jews in Babylon to rejoice because the Lord comes to free them from their slavery and bring them home. “Lord, come and save us,” echoes the responsorial psalm. The prophet further declares that when the Lord comes, the whole of creation will rejoice because he comes to save and to give life. The desert will blossom… the lame will leap… the blind will see… sorrow and mourning will flee.
These very signs of the coming of the Messiah (the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed…) are the signs Jesus points to John the Baptist to answer his question whether Jesus is the one to come or whether they are to wait for another.
Joy is an unmistakable sign of God’s coming. It is an indisputable indication of God’s presence. In teaching Dominic Savio how to become a saint, Don Bosco tells him that to be a saint means to happy. The priest then explains. To be holy means to have God in one’s heart through sanctifying grace. If one possesses God, can he be sad? He, in fact, is the happiest person alive for he owns more than the whole world.
The joy of having God is deep. It can withstand any pain and difficulty. As John Catoir says, “Joy is not the absence of pain. It is the awareness of God’s loving presence within you” And because of this awareness, one feels safe and secure even in the midst of adversities. It is a joy no one can take away from you, of which St. Teresa of Avila speaks in her celebrated little poem, Nada Te Turbe.
Let nothing disturb you,
Let nothing frighten you,
All things pass away:
God never changes.
Patience obtains all things.
He who has God
Finds he lacks nothing;
God alone suffices.
This, I’m sure was what kept that smile ever shining on the face of Nang Poping.*