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Patrick O’Shea: A different kind of joy

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While Christmas brings - we hope - a celebratory joy, Advent encourages us to cultivate an expectant joy.
While Christmas brings – we hope – a celebratory joy, Advent encourages us to cultivate an expectant joy.

By Patrick O’Shea

I recall a Mass I attended in Brussels a number of years ago for the First Sunday of Advent. Being a Gothic European Church, a smaller version of St Mary’s Cathedral, if you will, it predisposed me to prayer and I was able to appreciate the beauty of the Mass that was about to start. The part that confused me, though, was their choice of recession hymn: Joy to the World.

Joy to the World is a classic Christmas carol; I have heard it as a hymn in many churches, more upbeat-pop versions over the speaker at the shopping centre and even the baritone cover by Crosby (my personal favourite). The problem here was that it is specifically a Christmas song and it was being used during Advent. On this Gaudete Sunday, aren’t we called to be joyful, though?

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Gaudete Sunday receives its name from the Introit of the Mass, taken from St Paul’s Letter to the Philippians: “Gaudete in Domino semper”, translated as “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4). The Scriptures are full of accounts of trials and tribulations but also of constant joy in such troubles. It seems odd, though, to have joy as a theme of Advent when it is a period of preparation for the true Joy to come; aren’t we jumping the gun a little bit? Was that Belgian Parish right to sing Joy to the World so soon?

There is the old saying “good things come to those who wait”. While this may well be true in many circumstances, if you think about it long enough, it rings hollow. I would like to add to it “good things come to those who wait well”. Thankfully, today’s Introit not only exhorts us to rejoice but also begins to set out a guide on how to wait well for the Lord’s coming.

In chapter 4 of his Letter to the Philippians, St Paul continues from his joyful Introit, exhorting us to gentleness, prayer, and thanksgiving, through which our hearts and minds will be guarded by the peace of God (Phil 4:5-7). In waiting for the coming of Christ in the manger at Bethlehem, is this not the way to wait well? To foster the gentleness of the Christ-child, make prayerful preparations for his Nativity, and give thanks for the year that has been? In the restlessness of Christmas shopping and organising parties for different circles of friends and family, don’t we find that our hearts rest only in the peace of God?

“This anticipation of Christmas, which is what this joy is all about, cannot be slept on. We cannot watch it pass us by like a freight train while we wait for Our Lord’s Nativity.”

The joy that we are called to during Advent is that of expectant joy, rather than a celebratory one. It is the difference between a child struggling to go to sleep on Christmas Eve out of sheer giddy excitement and the same child waking mum and dad early on Christmas morn wanting to open presents. This anticipation of Christmas, which is what this joy is all about, cannot be slept on. We cannot watch it pass us by like a freight train while we wait for Our Lord’s Nativity.

In the parable of the talents, the Master returns expecting profit to be made from that which he gave his servants, each according to their ability (Matt 25:14-30). We want to imitate the servants who were given five and two talents, respectively – to use what time we have before Christmas to wait well for the Master’s coming. We want to foster our gentleness to others, enrich our prayer life, and give thanks for the year that’s been. In focusing on the joyful exhortation of St Paul, we can find ourselves at the end of December reflecting those words of the Saviour, “enter into the joy of thy Lord”.

I often find myself at this time of year musing on the words and tune to O Come, O Come Emmanuel, especially the oft-forgotten later verses that are rarely sung at Mass. Just like forgotten Old Testament figures, they help to break open the spirit of Advent and serve as a compendium of anticipation for the coming of Christmas. While I probably should track down that Belgian parish and let them know that Christmas songs during Advent are a no-go, it is important to keep that joyful spirit about us during these last weeks before Christmas.

As we continue to foster gentleness, prayer, and thanksgiving, may the Desire of Nations bid all quarrels cease and fill the world, along with our hearts and minds, with Heaven’s peace.

Patrick O’Shea is a young pro-life activist and a staff member of the Archdiocese of Sydney

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