Keeping our eyes open

By

3 Dec 2020

Christmas should not be primarily marked by being anxious about sin, but by being filled with a growing sense of joy.

These days most people keep vigils because they are anxious. We wait in hospital corridors for news of a sick relative. A parent stays up with an infant who may be teething or has a high temperature. We might even sit by the phone waiting to be reassured that a loved one is safe and well, or that we have passed the exam, been accepted into a course or college or we got the job. Many of these occasions can be highly stressful vigils.

Some people keep vigils that are filled with excited anticipation, as when some young adults sleep out to get tickets to a sports game or a concert, or when we see the old year out and the new year in.

It was not long ago, however, that vigils were a much more common feature of people’s lives. There were vigils with the dead. There used to be all-night vigils of prayer, especially when parishes had perpetual adoration of the Blessed Sacrament. Some still do. Perhaps before any of us can remember, there were also vigils kept with the bride the night before her wedding, when she waited and watched for the sign of her approaching groom and his attendants. The Church has enshrined the experience of keeping vigil through the Vigil Mass on Saturday night, the Vigil Ceremony in the funeral rites and the most important one, the Easter Vigil.

Whatever the vigil might be about, it is almost always a very good indicator of what or who we truly value. And the discomfort of ‘vigiling’ is discounted by the end result.

Advent is like one elongated vigil in preparation for Christmas. In this regard it is like Lent, and that’s not by accident. Through the first millennium of Christianity, Advent was a later Lent. Both were five weeks long, marked by fasting and penance and both gave the faithful a day off half-way through. Advent, however, got shortened to four weeks in the 10th century and Pope Gregory VII eased the fasting and penitential aspects of this season in the 12th century. He knew that preparing for Christmas should not be primarily marked by being anxious about sin, but by being filled with a growing sense of joy.

So much so that in every Advent season we have Gaudete Sunday, literarily the ‘rejoicing Sunday,’ and it used to mirror Lent’s Laudate Sunday, that day of respite half-way through our fasting and penance. Since the 10th century, our rejoicing day is not-so-half-way anymore, but that’s no matter.

All Christians should take joy seriously. We all know that the Gospels never record Jesus as laughing, but as James Martin SJ capably demonstrates in Between Heaven and Mirth: Why joy, humor, and laughter are at the heart of the spiritual life, some of the parables in their cultural context would have been hilarious. This sense of humour can be lost on us.

Pope Francis knows that in any season, and even when it is out of season, joy should mark our Christian lives. ‘The Christian message is called the “Gospel”, that is, “the good news”, an announcement of joy for all people; the Church is not a refuge for sad people, the Church is a house of joy.’ On another occasion the Holy Father said, ‘…if we keep this joy to ourselves it will make us sick in the end, our hearts will grow old and wrinkled and our faces will no longer transmit that great joy – only nostalgia and melancholy, which is not healthy… [They]…have more in common with pickled peppers than the joy of having a beautiful life.’ He called his first Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel.

Taking the Pope’s words to heart, let me give you one piece of advice this Advent: if you are a happy Christian can you please tell your face about it sometime soon? Catholics, especially, can be the gloomiest lot you ever want to see. Sometimes before Mass begins in my parish at North Sydney, I encourage the congregation to greet all of those around them, especially any visitors we may have. Usually the front half of the church warmly indulges me. The back half can look at me contemptuously with a glare that says, ‘I don’t do that nonsense, get on with it – you have 45 minutes until I’m out of here.’

In Australia we have seen some fine young Catholics drift to evangelical churches. While the reasons for this drift are many and varied, every time I have been to a Pentecostal community I have been generously and explicitly welcomed. The congregation seemed to be genuinely joyful to be there. I always compare and contrast that experience with what I see and encounter in some of our own churches.

Our lack of joy, of course, can be a symptom of serious spiritual illnesses. It can sometimes show how a believer thinks they have to earn God’s salvation or that they have to save the world or that they can never be worthy of God’s mercy and love. None of these are laughing matters. They are heresies. Only God saves us through unmerited grace. Though we cooperate in salvation, it is the Trinity who affects salvation for the world. And there is not a person who is beyond the mercy and love of God.

The sort of joy I am advocating here is not walking around with a supercilious smile on one’s face, pretending we do not have a care in the world. That’s a pathology. Christian joy is about knowing where we have come from, why we are here, and where we are going. That should put a spring in our step.

Our preparation for Christmas is a vigil of growing joy at what God has done for us in Jesus Christ, and it should work against anything that might see us end up pickled peppers!

Rev Dr Richard Leonard SJ is the author of What are we waiting for? Reflections for Advent and ChristmasThis is the third in a series of Advent articles that first appeared in A Silver Lining, from the Parish of Our Lady of the Way, North Sydney.

First Sunday of Advent Year B, 29 November 2020, see Entwined for eternity
Second Sunday of Advent Year B, 6 December 2020, see The unsettling sound of silence
Fourth Sunday of Advent Year B, 20 December 2020, see Waiting in line

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