Dancing for Joy | Gaudete Sunday 2018

Today our churches will be a riot of rose vestments, incense and music, but very few, I suspect, will be filled with dancing. Catholics don’t do that sort of thing, except perhaps in parts of Africa where dance is intrinsic to the local culture. In the West, liturgical dance tends to be something of an embarrassment. It conjures up visions of middle-aged persons executing vague swoops and dives to the accompaniment of drums and guitars: a kind of church-goers’ Strictly without the glitz. In Spain, they take a more relaxed attitude: As Henri Pirenne remarked, ‘Africa begins at the Pyrenees’. That certainly applies to Seville, the city of dance. Those who have witnessed the beautiful Baile de los Seises, that strange, slow dance  of the choristers before the altar of the cathedral, will have been told how hard-won their privilege is. In the seventeenth century the Vatican took seventeen years to agree that the ancient dance might continue, but only ‘for as long as the choristers’ clothes do not wear out’. Of course, they never have. A patch here, an addition there, new shoes or breeches now and then; so the dance goes on.

It is important that the dance should go on because it symbolizes much more than may be apparent at first glance. One of today’s Mass readings, Zephaniah 3.14–18, provides us with an unforgettable image of God dancing for joy over his children. We can identify with David, dancing for joy as the Ark of the Covenant is brought back to Jerusalem, but God dancing for joy over us! That is a joy to fill the whole of creation. As this last week of Advent begins, we rejoice at the nearness of our God, but only because he has first rejoiced over us:

The Lord your God is in your midst,
a victorious warrior.
He will exult with joy over you,
he will renew you by his love;
he will dance with shouts of joy for you
as on a day of festival.

This is the Wisdom from on high whom we shall invoke in tomorrow’s ‘O’ antiphon, the God of infinite power and love who reaches from end to end of the universe, who will teach us the way of truth — and whose joyful dance will never end.

O antiphons:
For texts, translations and music of the ‘O’ antiphons, beginning on 17 December, please see http://www.benedictinenuns.org.uk/Additions/Additions/advent.html (Flash needed for the audio).

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Gaudete Sunday 2014

Every year for the last ten years I have blogged about Gaudete Sunday. Every year, for as long as I can remember, I have been to Mass on this Sunday and shared in the Sacrament of the altar. Today, however, will be different. I shall drive Quietnun to Mass (we live some miles away from the nearest Catholic church, common enough in England, but rarer elsewhere) and while she participates in the Mass inside, I shall be sitting outside, reading the lessons and prayers*. It is, if I’m honest, slightly miserable. Which brings me to my point.

This morning many a priest will be exhorting his congregation to rejoice. The Mass readings are full of exultant joy; and the choir, if there is one, will be raising the roof with glad song. Even the church’s appearance will change today, with a swirl of rose vestments and incense breaking in on our Advent plainness. So what do we do if our own feelings are out of step with the message, if we are, so to say, feeling like outsiders?

We cannot and should not pretend to a joy we do not have, but instead of shrugging off the whole idea and going our misanthropic way alone, perhaps we should reconsider what we mean by rejoicing and why we are exhorted to be joyful. The joy of a Christian has nothing to do with feelings; it has very little to do with circumstances, either, but has everything to do with hope — our hope in Christ and our hope for all eternity. The broken heart is still broken, but now it is bound up; the poor are still poor, but now we hear the Good News; whatever our past failures, now we are wrapped in the cloak of integrity. (cf Isaiah 61. 1-2, 10-11) Like John the Baptist, we look beyond ourselves to the person of Christ; and like John, we rejoice, we find our joy in Him. We may be going through a desert period in our lives; we may be very conscious of our own fragility and unworthiness; but it doesn’t matter. Christ is all in all. As I sit in the car this morning, I shall try to remember that.

* The chemotherapy I’m having means I’m vulnerable to infection.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Gaudete Sunday 2012

A propos Gaudete Sunday, several days ago I wrote the following for my column in this week’s Universe:

This Sunday the Church invites us to rejoice in a big way. Our Saviour is coming! It isn’t an impersonal salvation we are awaiting but a person, someone with a name and personality, Jesus of Nazareth. So, rejoice we ought; but what if rejoicing seems artificial? How do we rejoice when we feel nothing, or if our hearts are breaking because of death in the family or some other tragedy? Do we just try to put on a happy face?

When the Duke and Duchess of Cambridge announced that they were expecting a child, the media suddenly became attentive. The language they used changed, even in the most ‘pro-choice’ newspapers. There was no talk of a ‘foetus’ having been conceived; no dour allusions to silver spoons and gilded circumstances. No, the Cambridges were expecting a baby, a human being with a history and, please God, a future destiny. The most surprising people seemed to take pleasure in the prospect of new life, adding their own good wishes to the chorus of congratulation. This well-wishing was quite independent of anything the well-wishers were personally experiencing. It was, if you like, general goodwill and hope evoked by the prospect of a new birth.

Sometimes we are so in awe of the majesty and holiness of God we can overlook the fact that we are invited to rejoice in the birth of Jesus in much the same way as we rejoice in any human birth. We do not have to falsify anything, certainly not pretend to a delight we may not feel. We have only to acknowledge that with this birth life and hope are reborn in us and the world generally. There, surely, is reason to rejoice.

However, even that may be too hard for some. How can I rejoice when all I know is blankness and despair? If we cannot climb over the mountain, we must burrow underneath. The first reading at Mass, from the prophet Zephaniah, tells us how. If we aren’t rejoicing, we need to know that God is rejoicing over us. He is so filled with joy and delight at the prospect before him, he is dancing — indeed, dancing for joy.

I’ve put some phrases in bold to remind myself, and perhaps some of my readers, that when we are grieving for all those little children and their teachers in Newtown, or all those killed by the storms in the Philippines (the death toll is now over 1,000), the call to rejoice doesn’t mean falsifying anything we think or feel. It is enough to know that God is rejoicing over us, wiping away the tears from our cheeks, gathering us to himself in an ever closer embrace. That is what salvation means for us, and, incidentally, what it means for our Saviour: a joy so deep and pure that those arms stretched out on the Cross are ever ready to receive us. Gaudete!Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail

Gaudete: the art of rejoicing

Gaudete Sunday, with its rose vestments, musical instruments, and general air of rejoicing, marks a further stage on our pilgrimage to Christmas, but have you ever stopped to think what ‘rejoicing’ actually means? Is there an art of rejoicing that we have to learn or can we simply laugh a great laugh and be joyful in His presence? A bit of both perhaps.

I have been pondering that lyrical first reading from Isaiah 61. It is often used at monastic Clothings because of the reference to the ‘garments of salvation’. When I was clothed, my father sent me a small card on which he had inscribed not ‘he has clothed me in the garments of salvation’ but ‘he has wrapped me in the cloak of integrity’. To anyone who did not know him, my father’s choice might have seemed puzzling. Why prefer the cloak of integrity to the garments of salvation? I think it has to do with the obligation that integrity lays upon us and the freedom and joy that fidelity to vocation confer. We cannot stretch the metaphor too far, but the garments of salvation are a sign of gladness of heart, a gift from the Lord, but to be wrapped in integrity is to assume a duty, that of being prophets in our own generation. Integrity is never very comfortable and will always lead to difficult and demanding situations. It is no accident that St John the Baptist was a man of the utmost integrity. He was also one of the most joyful. May he teach us not only how to be people of integrity but also the art of rejoicing.Facebooktwitterredditpinterestlinkedintumblrmail