This lovely liturgical season of Advent is more than a sentimental journey to the side of the manger with an ox and an ass and some straw strewn around for ambience. We Christians fast before our feasts with vigils and with whole seasons. Advent, dressed in violet and not white, is therefore penitential. We sing the Alleluia but not the Gloria. The season is more about the Second Coming of the Lord than it is about His Nativity. Hence, in a spirit of penance we shouldn’t have flowers and fancy instrumental music for Mass, though this rubric is often honored more in the breech during Advent than the observance, probably because this time is shot through with the happy prospect of the celebration of Christmas. So, Advent is joyfully penitential. Or is it penitentially joyful?
Joy does not exclude penance, nor penance joy. Christian joy embraces penance and finds peace in it.
We’ll come back to this, but first we should get the necessary part in for newcomers to this vast liturgical treasury of the Roman Rite. We veterans of sacred worship all by now know only too well that this Sunday takes its nickname from the first word of the Introit chant of Holy Mass in the Roman Rite from Philippians 4:4-16: “Gaudete” which means “Rejoice!”
“Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!”
Gaudete, an imperative of gaudeo, not a “suggestive”, sets the theme. We are today imitating the corresponding Sunday in Lent, “Laetare” Sunday, that Latin nickname also coming from the Introit, also meaning “Rejoice!” but from a different verb. Since Gaudete parallels Laetare Sunday today we have rose (rosacea) colored vestments as we do also only on the 4th Sunday of Lent. Both these Sundays anticipate something of the joy of the upcoming feasts, Christmas and Easter. Therefore, only on these two Sundays do we relax the outward signs of penance and allow flowers back in church and play music with different instruments and wear our wonderful rose. And to conclude this nuts and bolts section, the rose color is authentically more like to madder or even salmon than it is to baby rattle pink. Rosecea. So there.
If we have as a motif for the Mass the forceful Pauline injunction, “Rejoice always!”, so too we have another motif in our Gospel reading from John 1: 19-28 about the messengers of the Pharisees quizzing John the Baptist about his identity. John cites Isaiah 40: “Make straight the way of the Lord.” Isaiah proclaimed,
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
Make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
4 Every valley shall be lifted up,
and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
and the rough places a plain.
5 And the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
We have deep holes in which darknesses are harbored, memories which need purification and healing. We have artificial constructs of pride about ourselves, which might manifest in presumption, haughtiness, or false humility. Christ is going to raise those holes and press down those mountains whether we have tried in advance to do so. He offers us the help of actual graces and the sacraments and the examples of saints in the Church. But it is going to happen. One day.
What else can “making straight the way of the Lord” be other than doing penance and amending one’s life? Why do we undertake them? Because, not only are they good to do for their own sake out of love for God, but also because we are going to meet with God for our judgment in His eventual Second Coming or in the consequence of our inevitable death, our “coming” to Him, whichever comes first.
We prepare for the First Coming liturgically in Advent as well as for the Second Coming. Christ, however, comes to us in other ways as well. He comes in the person of the priest, who is “another Christ… alter Christus” who acts “in the person of Christ… in persona Christi”. Christ comes at the calling of the priest in the consecration of the Eucharist. He comes to each of us in our reception of Holy Communion, Body, Blood, Soul and Divinity, the real truly present Christ whole and entire. Christ the Word comes to us in the Word, Holy Scripture. He is present to us when we devoutly and attentively read it. Moreover, Christ comes to us in all those who are in need of our works of mercy, spiritual and corporal. As a matter of fact, these are comings of Christ that align ourselves personally with sacrifice, that indispensable element of the love that is charity which looks to the good of another even at cost to oneself. Works of mercy performed not grudgingly but with charity are penitential, in that they cost us something. Performed with sacrificial love, they are also occasions of joy. They straighten our ways. They straight the Lord’s way. We have so many opportunities for meeting with the Lord even now, in advance of The Big One. These personal comings of the Lord in need are joyfully penitential, penitentially joyful mini-advents.
There is nothing new about this, by the way. In an Advent sermon, St. Pope Leo I (“the Great” +461) preached:
“What can be more salutary for us than fasting, by the practice of which we draw nearer to God, and, standing fast against the devil, defeat the vices that lead us astray. For fasting was ever the food of virtue. From abstinence there arise chaste thoughts, just decisions, salutary counsels. Through voluntary suffering the flesh dies to concupiscences, the spirit waxes strong in virtue. But as the salvation of our souls is not gained solely by fasting, let us fill up what is wanting in our fasting with almsgiving to the poor. Let us give to virtue what we take from pleasure. Let abstinence of those who fast be the dinner of the poor.”
How ROMAN Catholic! Here’s your VETUS, my dear readers.
If these things are salutary, then they are occasions of joy. They are inextricably linked to penitential mercy and they bring happiness and peace, not only to those who receive them but also to those who perform them.
Since the earliest times to be Roman Catholic means to increase in virtue through penance and works of mercy. Increasing in virtue is an increase of joy.
Finally, for those who are having a hard time feeling joy regarding the Church and her various vicissitudes right now, I remind that joy is the default setting for Christians. Even in the midst of calamities, how can we be otherwise knowing that through baptism we are members of the Body of Christ, the Church? With this identity firmly in place, when we have occasion to mourn or to be anxious, even these can be converted into joy, sometimes more penitential than at other times but shot through with joy and with peace, joy’s echo, nonetheless. Perhaps the remedy for your anxiety is to be grateful, to pray, and to rejoice always, but especially in good works. Paul knew what he was talking about.
What does Paul say to us in Mass on this Gaudete Sunday in the Vetus Ordo?
Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! … Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God. Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.