Just beyond the half-way mark during Advent and Lent, the Church encourages us to rejoice. Today is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin word for “Rejoice,” which opens the Introit or Entrance Antiphon of today’s Mass.
What do we mean by joy? Some people imagine that a perpetual grimace is a sign of holiness. But peacefulness, calmness, contentment, acceptance of God’s will in one’s life – all make for genuine joy, which isn’t cheap hilarity or superficiality. Joy arises from the sure conviction that God is in charge, and that nothing will happen this day that He and I – together – will be unable to handle.
Joy arises because of the awareness that the greatest battles in life – against the world, the flesh and the Devil – have been fought – and won – by Jesus Christ; it but remains for us to claim the victory. This perspective on reality provides a person with a real sense of humor, which is a fitting and necessary pre-condition for entrance into a state of eternal joy.
Although Advent has a quasi-penitential quality to it, it also includes a spirit of joyful anticipation. So, let’s consider how to foster Christian joy during this season.
Make the necessary Christmas preparations holy. We Catholics are not Scrooges, who shun a genuine Christmas spirit. Shopping for gifts for family and friends should be done happily. We give gifts at Christmas in imitation of our Heavenly Father, who gave first to us the inestimable Gift of His Only Son.
Generosity is called for, extravagance is not. Give religious gifts like spiritual books, subscriptions to Catholic periodicals, Christian art for home decoration, as well as spiritual bouquets. When family members ask you what you want, don’t be afraid to ask for something that really matters, like your fallen-away son or daughter would make a long-overdue confession and get return to life in Christ’s Church. In Christmas cards or “e-messages,” make a point of praying for the people to whom you are writing.
And remember the poor, not with perfunctory or token gifts, but gifts with a true sacrificial dimension. Much of popular Christmas lore recalls the poverty of the Christ-Child, born in a stable. A lovely French carol, “Jésus-Christ s’habille en pauvres” (“Jesus Christ comes in the guise of the poor”), recounts how a poor family share their humble Christmas dinner with someone who is even poorer than they, finally to discover that their Guest was none other than the Lord Himself (the haunting melody comes into English hymnody as “Let All Mortal Flesh Keep Silence”).
Make the Sacred Liturgy the high point of your Christmas celebration. Even practicing Catholics lately have developed a habit of “squeezing in” Holy Mass amid the other observances of the day. How many priests bemoan the fact that the vigil Masses of Christmas at four and five in the afternoon are jammed, while the Midnight Mass (if one is even scheduled) and the morning Masses are depressingly empty, which has the effect of voiding the feast of its centrality and significance?
Only when Holy Mass is honored, do the other aspects of the day have any real meaning; indeed, then the present-opening, the visiting of friends, the Christmas banquet all become “sacraments” of the Sacrament. Nor should we forget that for Catholics, Christmas happens every day as the great mystery of the Incarnation is re-presented in the Eucharist when Emmanuel once more “pitches His tent among us.”
Keep Christmas alive for the duration of the liturgical season. The Christmas season ends with the feast of the Lord’s Baptism (this year, January 9). So keep up the tree and outdoor decorations until then. Friends or neighbors will ask you why, which will give you an opportunity to catechize or evangelize on the meaning of the feast.
Trying to return our society to a Christian appreciation of Christmas may seem like trying to turn around a Mack truck on a single-lane highway. But it’s worth trying because it can be the first sally in the much-needed effort to return our nation to its Christian and religious roots. Such an effort would bring joy to the Heart of the Christ Child, who is the Light in the midst of oppressive darkness.
In a 2012 Sunday Angelus address, Benedict XVI spoke of the “Woman of Christmas” – the Blessed Virgin Mary – and the experience of joy:
Mary Immaculate speaks to us: she speaks to us of joy, of that authentic joy that fills the heart freed from sin. Sin carries a sadness with it that leads us to close ourselves up within ourselves. Grace brings with it the true joy that does not depend on having things but is rather rooted in the most intimate, deepest part of the person, and that nothing and nobody can take away. Christianity is essentially a “gospel,” “glad tidings,” although some think that it is an obstacle to joy, because they see in it a collection of prohibitions and rules. In reality, Christianity is the proclamation of the victory of grace over sin, of life over death. . . .It is necessary therefore to learn to say no to the voice of egoism and to say yes to the voice of authentic love. Mary’s joy is full because there is no shadow of sin in her heart. This joy coincides with the presence of Jesus in her life: Jesus conceived and carried in her womb, then the child entrusted to her maternal care, the adolescent and young man and the mature adult; Jesus leaving home, followed at a distance with faith, even to the cross and the resurrection: Jesus is Mary’s joy and the joy of the Church, of all of us.
He concluded: “In this season of Advent, Mary Immaculate teaches us to listen to the voice of God that speaks in silence; to welcome His grace, which liberates us from sin and from all egoism; to taste, therefore, the true joy.”
And so, we pray: Mary, Cause of Our Joy, pray for us!
*Image: Heart of Mary by Miguel Ballejo y Mandirano, c. 1750 [Bowers Museum, Sana Ana, California]