14 December 2009

How do you wait for a revelation?

3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday): Readings
Fr. Philip Neri Powell, OP
SS. Domenico e Sisto, Roma

Three words come to mind on Gaudete Sunday: joy, expectation, revelation. Since Advent is a penitential season we could easily add penance to the list. But like Laudete Sunday during Lent, Gaudete Sunday breaks the fast of the season, giving us a peek at the coming revelation of the incarnation. These “times off” were likely much more welcomed in ages past. Fasting and abstinence were a bit more severe and a Sunday spent partying a week before Christmas and Easter served to relieve the burden of penance, giving faithful souls a boost for the final week of soaking in the mortality of the flesh. Nowadays, we jump from Thanksgiving straight to Christmas without much of anything in between. This is an old complaint among us Advent Nazis, one that falls on ears deafened by hypnotizing muzaked carols and the cha-ching of the cash register. Try as we might, those of us who push Advent as its own season usually fail in our mission, managing only to foist upon Christmas-happy Catholics modest concessions in displaying seasonal symbols and the occasional scheduling of a communal penance service. I'm told again and again, “Stop being Father Grinch, Father!” With great pastoral sensitivity and an ear to the popular mood, I usually just release an exasperated sigh and do my best to preach that without a sense of expectation, waiting is useless to our growth in holiness; without a sense of the hidden, revelation has nothing to reveal; and without a little holy fear, joy is just a mood-stabilizer for the bubble-headed. Gaudete Sunday, properly understood, is more than a peek at the holiday to come; it is a expectant-peek into the unveiling of our joy in Christ.

We re-joice. We en-joy. We can be joy-ful. We can take delight in; be gladden by; we can relish, appreciate, and even savor. We can be satiated and satisfied. Where do we find joy, discover what gladdens us? And why? Why do find joy in this but not that? Why aren't we gladden by all that God has made? Why isn't everyone joyful? St. Thomas gives us an important (if somewhat dry) insight: “[. . .] joy is caused by love, either through the presence of the thing loved, or because the proper good of the thing loved existed and endures in it [. . .] Hence joy is not a virtue distinct from charity, but an act, or effect, of charity”(ST II-II 28.1, 4). Joy is an effect of love. Love causes joy. Where there is no love, there can be no joy. This may sound simple enough, but how often have you heard joy explicitly linked to the virtue of charity, the good habit of loving for the sake of love alone? Don't we usually think of rejoicing, of being joyful, as a temporary emotional spike in an otherwise hum-drum existence? We move along the day in a comfortable flat-line until something happens to us that lifts our spirit, bumps the happy meter up a peg or two. Then the line goes flat again, waiting for the next spike, for the next jump to excite the bored soul.

If love is the food and drink of the Body, then Christian joy can not be a temporary condition, an momentary infection easily defeated by the chores of survival. As beings made in the image and likeness of Love Himself, our very existence—forget our acts; forget our thoughts and attitudes—just-being-here is evidence of love's sustaining power. It is the holy will of a loving God that we Are, just that we live, move, and have our being in Him. From this gift alone we can nourish and harvest a formidable holiness! If God is love and love causes joy; and if we are made in the image and likeness of God who is love; then we are love embodied. We were made to cause joy. But because we too often seek the raw counsel of mere survival—forgetting love and strangling joy;—because we run after things that cannot love us; because we work ourselves bloody toward the low horizon of worldly achievements; because of disobedience and sin, we require a push toward, a tug from Love Himself. One name for this tug, this divine seduction is The Incarnation.

Just as we wait for the Easter resurrection during Lent, we wait for the incarnation during Advent. On Easter morning, the tomb is emptied of our crucified Lord and he ascends to the Father. On Christmas morning, the Son is emptied of his divinity, and he descends to become a servant, a man like us. Before the tomb is emptied, before the Son is emptied, we wait a season with penitential hearts. We do not set aside our joy to mourn; rather, because we are joyful, our failure to always be the cause of joy in others is made all too apparent. The contrast and conflict between who we were made to be and who we have become is sharpened by penitential mourning, by regret and repentance, giving us the chance to see and hear that the perfection of our joy is coming among us—the Incarnation. He emptied himself to become our sin so that our joy might be complete.

What are we waiting for during Advent? A revelation, an unveiling. We expect his arrival in the flesh because we know that he loves us. Our penitential waiting seasons our rejoicing, salts our anticipation, adding to the food and drink of the Body the fullness of both our confessed failures and the assurance of His forgiveness. But if we do not wait; if we fail to seek out what is hidden; if we will not love one for another; then, we cannot expect a joyful revelation. We can expect Santa Claus and Christmas hams and brightly wrapped presents. But we cannot expect to see and hear the birth of our Lord among us. If, after the long season of Lent, we expect the tomb to be empty on Easter morning, then we must expect the Son to be emptied on Christmas day. Without the coming of Christ, Christ never arrives.

Advent is set aside for us to mourn our failures to love. Gaudete Sunday is set aside so that we are reminded of creation's coming Joy. We have one more week to wait. What is it that you are waiting for? More importantly, who are you waiting for and how are you waiting?


  1. "without a little holy fear, joy is just a mood-stabilizer for the bubble-headed" is a great line.

    I'm on the same bandwagon here! It works as long as I stay out of the malls - which I do.

  2. Thanks for the primer on joy, Fr. Philip. Not a random feeling, but the logical consequence of true caritas -- yes!! And I found St. Thomas' definition scintillating, personally...

    BTW -- the respite Sunday in Lent is Laetare (not Laudete) Sunday [laetare, singular imperative of laetari, to rejoice]. That concludes my impersonation of a Classics scholar!

    [Volga boat men song] Happy Advent!