Fr Martin Henry: The joy of Advent

In a reflection for Advent, Fr Martin Henry argues that it doesn’t matter what we think we do for God; rather, it’s what God does for us that counts

A painting of the Nativity by renaissance artist Baldassare Peruzzi which is on display at the Ulster Museum in Belfast
The Nativity The Ulster Museum in Belfast is celebrating giving the Christmas gift of an "exceptionally rare" painting of the nativity to visitors. The Nativity, by Baldassare Peruzzi, dates back to 1515 and has been described as an exceptionally rare surviving work by the Italian artist - and the only one in the UK. The painting, which is also the first High Renaissance painting to enter a public collection in Northern Ireland, has gone on display at the museum in time for Christmas (Darren Kidd/Press Eye/PA)

The third Sunday of Advent, which is marked today, is traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, or the ‘Sunday for rejoicing’, as it might be translated. It’s the Sunday when the Church’s liturgy highlights the mood of hope and joyful expectation that Advent evokes, in anticipation of Christmas.

For where there’s hope, there’s at least the makings of joy. But where there’s no hope, there’s probably no joy either; there is perhaps only regret, regret for a past that is closed and cannot be re-opened. Hope, on the other hand, is directed to a future that is still open. But also still open, of course, is the question of whether what lies ahead of us, beyond death, is better than what we now have.

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So, all things considered, on Gaudete Sunday, should we be jumping for joy at the thought of our future prospects, or succumbing to the sadness of regret for a bungled or maybe just an indifferent, but now vanished, past?

Before we try to answer that question, we might recall that if you do jump for joy, you should make sure nobody moves the ground from beneath your feet (Jerzy Lec).

And there’s the rub. For joy may exact a high price. On the one hand, the gospel leaves us in no doubt about the prize to be won in the Kingdom of God. It is so unimaginably great that to get in anywhere at all, to be even the least in that Kingdom, is still to be greater than John the Baptist, of whom Jesus said that “among those born of women there has been none greater than John the Baptist” (Matthew 11:11). Who wouldn’t jump at such a prize? Who wouldn’t love to get it?

But, on the other hand, if we do embrace the Christian faith wholeheartedly, then it can, in principle, demand everything from us, the sacrifice of all that we have and all that we are, for the sake of the Kingdom of God.

It can demand, if necessary, even the ultimate sacrifice of life itself. But is such a demand not too high, is such a sacrifice not too great? Why should ordinary mortals be asked to show such commitment?

Questions of that nature have made many people wonder about Christianity before today. They’ve wondered whether the Christian faith is not just too sublime, too idealistic, too far beyond most normal people’s possibilities to be a realistic option. And such people may have a point.

But the strange paradox is that, despite all the talk about the demands Christianity makes, and which have in fact been accepted and fulfilled in the past by many of the faithful, it doesn’t really seem to matter in the long run what we do for God. Rather, it’s what God does for us that ultimately counts.

That’s to say, if being the least in the Kingdom of God is better, is greater, than even living and dying like John the Baptist, who at the end sacrificed his freedom and his life for God, then whatever the Kingdom of God is, it’s not something that even the highest human sacrifice – like John the Baptist’s – can ever bring into being.

Where, you might well ask, does that leave John the Baptist? Was he possibly deluded? Well, of course not. But if we believe he now is in the Kingdom of God, then it must be, not because of what he himself did and suffered, but because of what God in Christ has done for all humanity, in taking away the sins of the world by his death on the Cross, and opening the gates of Heaven for us.

“Salvation, the Church teaches us, is from Christ, not from us, and it’s that life-giving teaching which allows us to rejoice in this season of Advent

—   Fr Martin Henry

The gates of Heaven are now open permanently, because just as no human excellence, not even John the Baptist’s, could have opened up Heaven for us, so no human depravity, no human evil, we believe, can ever close Heaven again.

The Christian Church is the body that carries this saving truth through history. But the Church only carries this truth, it’s not identical with it, any more than a mother is identical with the child she carries in her womb, no matter how intimate and vital the relationship obviously is between them.

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In that sense the title ‘Holy Mother Church’, which can sometimes sound a bit quaint in today’s world, points us to a profound truth, that is both heartening and chastening. For the reality of Christ is kept alive in the Church, but since it is also true that the divine saviour in the womb of Holy Mother Church cannot survive outside it, there will always be a painful disparity between the Church which we flawed human beings present to the world, and the divine treasure within, which we have the privilege of protecting and handing on.

But, maybe even that isn’t such bad news, if it relieves us – as it should – of the responsibility for salvation. Salvation, the Church teaches us, is from Christ, not from us, and it’s that life-giving teaching which allows us to rejoice in this season of Advent.

For in rejoicing we’re not blowing our own trumpets, or crowing over our own achievements, but giving thanks to God who, for reasons best known to himself, has called us all out of nothingness into existence and who came to join us as a child 2,000 years ago in Bethlehem, in order to bring us to Heaven.

  • Martin Henry, former lecturer in theology at St Patrick’s College, Maynooth, is a priest of the diocese of Down and Connor