Stories of conversion have always held a strange fascination for me. I am a cradle Catholic and although looking back on my life I can see times of change and growth and alas more than a few times of spiritual retreat there is no single moment when I knew I had crossed a line from unbelief to belief. One of my favorite stories is of C.S. Lewis the great Christian author to wrote everything from the Narnia Series for children to Mere Christianity for basically everyone.
He was not from a religious family. Science and logic were the measures of all things. He was academically gifted and even from a young age knew that he would find a place in that world. It was a world in which everything was tightly connected with no reference to anything outside itself. Yet there were moments when something would seem to point beyond and lead to a longing for something more. He called that joy. He wrote: “All Joy reminds. It is never a possession, always a desire for something longer ago or further away or still ‘about to be’.” He sought this joy like a hunter after a tiger an emotion must be caused by something outside itself. Slowly, reluctantly he was led by an increasingly irrefutable logic that this was God. One night in his own words he simply “Gave up and admitted that God was God and knelt and prayed: perhaps that night the most dejected and reluctant convert in all England.”
Yet he realized that this was not enough. He knew that belief required a religion, a binding community and narrowed the choice to Hinduism or Christianity. One day, he knew not why, he simply came to believe in Jesus and recognized that he was the source of all joy, and that no matter what the circumstances, good, bad, or indifferent Jesus will be present. He called his spiritual autobiography, Surprised by Joy.
We call today, Gaudete Sunday. It comes from the entrance antiphon for the Mass “Rejoice in Lord always, again I say rejoice, Indeed the Lord is near” we find joy throughout the Mass. In the opening prayer we read “we pray to attain the joys of so great a salvation.” The first line of our first reading is “Shout for joy, O daughter Zion” and our second reading begins with our opening antiphon. The clearest sign is that the priest wears rose vestments. These are all signs of gladness and happiness.
Yet the Gospel reading is always about John the Baptist. He is not usually seen as a joyful figure. Yet remember Lewis’s comment “all Joy reminds, and often points to something which is about to be. John is the forerunner of Jesus., of what does he remind us.”
When he is asked by the crowds what shall we do? He does not tell them to be nice and perhaps give alms, but to give of their own clothing and food. This is the painful generosity which Jesus will himself teach. Look at the people who come to John, tax collectors and soldiers. These were Jews who went over to Rome and who were despised. John gives them good advice but gives the people the good example Jesus will: leave no one behind, reach out to all.
Those who heeded John’s message may have been shocked or even appalled but they had the opportunity of experiencing for a moment that there was more to being human than what is experienced in their day-to-day lives.
Joy is not happiness. Another great spiritual writer of the 20th century no longer I fear often read today Henri Nouwen wrote that while happiness is dependent on external conditions, joy is “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing – sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death – can take that love away.” Yet that can be so fleeting an experience
John offered a glimpse into joy but could not bring it himself. His baptism could provide insight but only Jesus can establish a relationship with us that is unending joy. He will baptize with the Holy spirit and fire and will make us his family.
The image of the winnowing fan is obscure to us but would have been understood by John’s audience.
Wheat is an edible seed which is protected by a casing called chaff. Chaff is inedible to humans and needs to be separated from the kernel. Winnowing is shaking the harvested grain so that the chaff is loosed from the edible wheat and then throwing both into the air where the lighter chaff is blown away and the heavier wheat falls to earth. The wheat is then collected into the barn.
Today’s gospel says it is Jesus’ barn, we are gathered into the Church. Through this community we know Jesus and experience unconditional love that nothing can take from us. This is a real bond but one which we do not feel at every moment, but which is always present.
For C.S. Lewis as for St. John the Baptist and indeed everyone who knows Jesus not just about him Jesus is joy. But they also testify that Jesus is surprising, a true master of the unexpected. He was born not in a palace but in a manger and will tell us that we will find him today not in the learned and the clever but in the invisible and despised. The stories he will tell us will bear no relation to our regular experience: people will work an hour for the same wage as someone who worked the entire day and sinful sons will be welcomed back into the family without hesitation or question. We don’t act that way, but Jesus does; we cannot give ourselves joy, Jesus can. John is showing us today that with Jesus expect the unexpected, no matter the temptations, joy is coming, accept no substitutes.