A Question of Faith, Fr Liam Power’s Fortnightly Column
I AM quoting a proverb from the Ladakhi people in Northern India. In the Christian liturgical calendar, we are currently celebrating the season of Advent. Derived from the Latin word adventus, which translates as coming or arrival, Advent is celebrated in our liturgies as a time of waiting in joyful hope. It is a time of preparation for the celebration of the nativity of Christ, the coming of Christ into our lives right now, and the second coming of Christ at the end of time.
Last Sunday, December 12, was the third Sunday of the Advent season. It is traditionally designated as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is another Latinism, meaning ‘let us rejoice.’ The theme of joy dominates the liturgy. We light a rose-coloured candle on the Advent wreath; the priest wears rose-coloured vestments, to symbolise and highlight the theme of joy.
Such liturgical focus on joy probably seems counterintuitive at this time – perhaps even irreverent – when there is so much going wrong in our world. Who can be joyful in the midst of a pandemic triggered by a virus which seems to resist our greatest efforts to control it? Just as society was opening up again, with restrictions lifted, we are challenged by another mutation of the virus. Now we are told that household gatherings over Christmas must be limited to four families and dining out is again restricted.
‘Technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy’
The latest variant, Omicron, is reported to be highly transmissible, if less severe, than the earlier Delta variant. Schools are stretched to the limit as more and more children become infected by the virus. Unfortunately, the Omicron variant is seemingly more resistant to the vaccine than earlier mutations.
In our parish here, we had hoped that the Christmas celebrations would not be subject to the same restrictions as last year. Unfortunately, we have to introduce a booking system for Masses over Christmas as people do not feel safe in a crowded church.
As well as the Covid menace, the threat posed by climate change is causing anxiety in many lives. Analysis of the final report from COP26 in Glasgow suggests that governmental pledges to curb greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 were totally inadequate. Current pledges will lead to a 2.4 degree rise above pre-industrial times which will be very challenging. Former President Mary Robinson agreed that some progress was made at Glasgow, “but nowhere near enough to avoid climate disaster.”
In the liturgy for Gaudete Sunday, Christians are invited to rejoice in the Lord always. The message of joy in a world so stricken can appear to be almost irreverent. People may well ask if a Christian is just some kind of Pollyanna, living in a make-believe fantasy world, out of touch with reality.
And yet, I continue to be surprised by joy or at least amazed by the joy that can break forth in people’s lives, even in the midst of adversity and struggle. I remember visiting our partner parish in Ishiara, Kenya. I was amazed at the joy in people’s hearts, which would burst forth in the liturgies where they would sing and dance for over three hours. These were people living in dire poverty, with mud huts for houses. For the most part they had no electricity or running water. Because of climate change they were forced to live at subsistence level, eking out an existence on small patches of ground. But there was a sense of joy in their lives, reflecting the fact that even in the midst of such struggle and unhappiness, something very much like joy can flourish. Certainly, there was no avoidance of the struggle or indeed denial or delusion. What is the secret?
I believe there is a difference between joy and happiness. Henri Nouwen, one of the great spiritual writers of the modern era, wrote about this difference and how joy can persist even in the saddest and most difficult of times. He wrote: “I remember the most painful times of my life as times in which I became aware of a spiritual reality much larger than myself, a reality that allowed me to live the pain with hope.”
I believe joy comes from the inside. Being happy or having fun depends on certain conditions such as good health, a good job, possessions. Happiness is determined by external factors and as such it comes from the outside. It has to do with quality and quantity. Nouwen argues that joy is something deeper. It is a deeply spiritual reality. It is, “the experience of knowing that you are unconditionally loved and that nothing — sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death — can take that love away.”
For the Christian, then, joy is an inner sense of the presence of the Lord and a profound belief that God has the last word. As such, it is the still-point in the storm of life.
The late Pope Paul VI wrote that the modern “technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy.” The Christmas season offers us an opportunity to rediscover the God who comes within and amongst us, who is named Emmanuel, God-with-us. May this God of love be reborn in all our hearts this Christmas time so that they are filled with the joy heralded in our liturgies, a joy that cannot be quenched by the threat posed by any Covid variant or climate change.