Every great city has a monument that becomes part of its identity. Paris has the Eiffel tower, London has Big Ben and San Francisco has the Golden Gate Bridge, to name a few. They are a source of pride for these cities as well as symbols of their importance. They are the first places tourists visit when they are in town and are on every postcard they send.
Ancient Jerusalem, however, had no great landmarks or tourist attractions to set it apart from other nations or peoples. The source of their pride was not huge granite monuments or architectural wonders. Rather the glory of Jerusalem was that God was in its midst. The fact that God selected Israel to be his chosen people made Jerusalem a shining jewel among the cities of the earth. And so the prophet Zephaniah can say, "Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! The Lord, your God is in your midst." Israel could be a joyful nation not because of its military might, not because of its economic power and not because of its economic influence. Their joy was that God dwelled among them. And the joy of the Lord was their strength.
This is a theme which Saint Paul picks up on in the second reading from the letter to the Philippians. He urges them to be joyful and to give thanks in all circumstances because God is near to them. Even in their need, they are to bring their petitions to God with gratitude in their hearts knowing beyond any doubt that he will hear and answer them. The joy of the believer is not based on what mood we happen to be in nor on how things are going in our lives. No matter what circumstance we may find ourselves in, God is always near to us. Christian joy, then, is rooted in the knowledge that we are loved and chosen by an Almighty Father who never leaves our side.
This attitude of gratitude is very important to our lives as Christians. It is easy to lose sight of it during our day-to-day struggles. When we choose to be thankful we are making an act of faith that no matter what we face God is at our side through it all. And so we give thanks for our rude co-worker. We give thanks when it is cold and rainy outside. We even give thanks when we face tragedies because they are all somehow a part of God's plan. It does not mean that we do not cry. It does not mean that we do not clench our teeth in anger. It does not mean that we never lose our cool. What it does mean is that we face all these challenges with a new strength and a new courage. It means that no tragedy can break us because we take joy in knowing that God is always by our side. And the joy of the Lord is our strength.
This attitude of gratitude not only has the power to change our mindset, it can also make real changes in the people around us.
About ten years ago at a Catholic men's conference, a college athlete gave a powerful witness to the power of gratitude. One of the teammates on his lacrosse team had been experiencing a dramatic loss in his strength and endurance. Though he had been a standout athlete throughout much of his college career, he was now no longer able to keep up in practice. After a battery of medical tests, he was diagnosed with a muscular disease. What had been a promising career in athletics had come to an abrupt end. All his dreams had been shattered.
Rather than sulk and brood, the young man decided that he would be thankful for the strength he had left and enjoy as much of his life as he could. He continued to show up at the practices and games to encourage his former teammates. His joy and gratitude were contagious. They no longer took for granted their own health and abilities, but played with renewed focus and purpose. What he was no longer able to contribute physically to the team, he contributed spiritually and emotionally. The change it made in their lives was evident off the field as well. They no longer swaggered around like "big men on campus" but made time to visit their fans in the hospital and to use their celebrity to promote charitable events.
Joy and gratitude, even in the face of a life threatening illness, made all the difference in the world.
The crowds that gathered around John the Baptist at the banks of the Jordan River asked him, "What must we do?" They were anticipating the coming of one who would be mightier than John, one who would baptize in the Holy Spirit and fire. They did not yet know the one who was to come, but we know him. He is Jesus, our Lord and Savior. What must we do who have been baptized in his Spirit and have been formed by his word? We must rejoice that he is present among us. We must live with gratitude no matter how much or how little we have. And then we must bring the good news to others so that they can share our joy. Then the joy of the Lord will truly be our strength.