Every relationship goes through three distinct phases - Romance, Disillusionment and Joy.
When we first meet people we find attractive, we are drawn to their good qualities. We might find them physically attractive. They might be fun to be around or we might admire their intelligence and spirituality. Being around them is easy and conversation comes naturally. We want to get to know them better and we make a point of spending time together. All the while, emotional bonds form and we find ourselves falling in love.
However, in time, no matter how close we may grow to a person and no matter how attractive we may find him or her, romance eventually gives way to disillusionment. As the haze of infatuation dissipates and our emotional balance returns, we start to see the other person more clearly. Their faults and shortcomings suddenly become more visible and they do not seem to be as attractive as we once thought. At times, we find our feelings being hurt by their insensitivity. What once came naturally - talking and spending time together - now takes effort. We start to wonder whether he or she is the right partner for us.
Many relationships do not survive the disillusionment stage. Sometimes it just becomes too difficult to work through our differences. However, those relationships that can make it past disillusionment reach the third stage - Joy. Joy is vastly different and more profound than the giddy excitement we feel in the romance stage. Rather than being based on an illusory, idealistic image of our partner, joy draws its intensity and strength from a realistic knowledge of the other. We find ourselves loving the whole person, not just the qualities we find attractive. We accept, embrace and celebrate our loved one day in and day out when it is easy and when it is difficult.
When our relationship reaches this stage, we find ourselves putting the other’s needs before our own, sacrificing willingly to support our loved one and letting go of hurt, frustration and anger for the sake of our relationship. And then, one day in a quiet moment when we are sitting together holding hands, feeling comfortable just being together without having to say a word, we discover that despite the hard work and sacrifice we are truly and deeply happy. That is joy.
Disillusionment is an experience we have in all our relationships, not just our romantic ones. We can be disillusioned with our parents when we feel that they have not loved us as much as we wanted. We can feel disillusioned with our political leaders when they fail to deliver on their promises. We can feel disillusioned with the Church when her members do not live up to the standard of goodness and holiness we expect. And we can feel disappointment even with God when we see the alarming level of injustice and suffering in our world.
However, if we can work our way through disillusionment we can also experience joy in every area of our lives. Disillusionment literally means having our illusions stripped away so that the truth can be revealed. When a husband has the illusion stripped away that his wife is capable of meeting all his needs, then he becomes free to love her unconditionally as she is. When we are stripped of the illusion that our parents have all the answers, then we can begin to appreciate their hard work and sacrifices and begin to learn from them. When I am stripped of the illusion that everyone in the Church is good and holy, then I can be free to stop looking for the hypocrisy in others and focus on how I can change to become the good and holy person Jesus calls me to be. And when I am stripped of the illusion that God is going to stop everything and remake the world as I would like to have it, then I can accept my responsibility in helping to make the world a better place. In all these instances, I experience a deep, lasting joy that is not based on illusion or wishful thinking but in the real goodness of creation and the ability to love even when it demands sacrifice.
Today, the Third Sunday of Advent, the Church calls us to joy, a joy based on the love and goodness of God. In preparation for the feast of our Savior’s birth, we have been facing the reality of sin in our lives and in our world. The struggle with temptation and injustice can leave us feeling discouraged and disillusioned. But today, as we light the third candle on our Advent wreath, we are reminded that Christmas is close. The reason for our struggle against sin and injustice becomes all the clearer - Jesus, the true light, is coming into the world - as Saint John proclaims in today’s gospel. Only His light can dispel the shadows and illusions that keep us trapped in despair and enslaved to error. He is the ultimate cause of our deep and lasting joy because He can never let us down or abandon us. He alone can meet our hopes and expectations of a fulfilled life. In fact, Scripture assures us that Jesus and He alone is capable of doing for us more than we could ever hope for or imagine. With Him in our hearts, we are empowered to bring joy into the lives of others despite our own weakness, fears and failings; because we are pointing them to the one who alone can meet the deepest need of every human heart - Jesus, the Light of the World.
In this life, disappointments and disillusionment are unavoidable. However, as Saint Paul instructs us, we rejoice always. With the joy of Jesus in our hearts, we can accept people as they are, serve their needs and love them unfailingly. When we sacrifice ourselves for others, looking past their faults, we will find as we reflect in quiet moments that we are truly happy. That is joy. That is Jesus, the Light of the World, alive in our hearts.