Pastoral Letter Advent 2022
Dear Brothers and Sisters,
The third Sunday of Advent is called Gaudete Sunday after the words of the introit: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always; again I say, rejoice.’ But can anyone order us to rejoice? Isn’t joy a feeling outside my authority? I long thought it was so. Then I realised I was wrong. A wise nun taught me that. She was, like me at the time, responsible for the liturgy in her monastery. To lead seven services a day is demanding. There are so many other things to be done! At times one is distracted; at times one is sad, exhausted, or irritable; one doesn’t feel like praying. Yet the bells ring regardless, no matter how I feel. What the nun taught me is that my moods are conditioned by my free agency. Often, I can do something about them. She told me of a strategy she had worked out: ‘When I stand at the church door’, she said, ‘and dip my fingers in holy water to make the sign of the cross, I say to myself: Now I am joyful!’ She consciously left behind whatever weighed her down or saddened her. In Jesus’s name she put on joy as if it were a cloak. Then she entered the house of God, free and attentive. I can testify that the strategy works. We can call it an asceticism of joy: exercise in the art of laying aside what impedes the joy for which God has created us.
Do we think it hypocritical to perform an action not in tune with our spontaneous emotion? If so, let us remember that feelings are to a large extent formed by actions we freely decide to perform or not to perform. Resolve is a key quality in our moral and spiritual life. Think of sport. Not many of us are ready, just like that, to run a marathon. We need to get into shape over time. We live at a time, in a country, in which there is a gym at every street-corner. We know how effective regular physical exercise can be. Should we take our spiritual exercise less seriously? That would be irresponsible and unwise.
As Catholics, we call the Church our Mother. Mothers make demands. One demand the Church makes is that we go to Mass each Sunday. We speak of the Sunday obligation. It would be better to speak of a Sunday privilege. At Mass we draw, Sunday after Sunday, from the fount of our joy: ‘The Lord is near’; indeed, he is present. At Mass we take part in Christ’s saving sacrifice; we witness the influx of eternity in time; we touch the foundation of the daring prayer which the priest prays on our behalf when, in the chalice, he mixes water with wine: ‘May we come to share in the divinity of Christ who humbled himself to share in our humanity.’ We are called to be renewed. The Church obliges us to attend Mass each Sunday because we depend on God’s grace and power to see and realise what we have it in us to become. ‘They shall see the glory of the Lord.’ That glory surrounds us in the sacred mysteries. They enable us to practise living joyfully on the terms of faith.
Christian joy is not incompatible with pain. To be human is painful at times. We have a terrible ability to cause one another pain. This year I have found Christian joy in what may seem a surprising place. Since Russia invaded Ukraine in February, the Greek Catholic Archbishop of Kyiv, Sviatoslav Shevchuk, has on a daily basis broadcast messages to people of good will. He accounts for the ravages of war, consoles the sorrowful, grieves for the dead; but above all he speaks of our Christian calling in today’s world. It is impressive to hear a bishop who, while bombs fall about him, expounds the beatitudes, urges us to be merciful, prays for enemies. Ukraine experiences destruction; and here is a bishop calling for the heart’s conversion and the galvanisation of the will in order that a new, blessed, peaceful society may rise from the ruins. Archbishop Shevchuk’s preaching is unsentimental and realistic, but full of hope. Thus it vibrates with joy even in the midst of warfare. It expresses rock-solid trust in God. It resonates with Isaiah’s promise, which the Church lets us hear today: ‘the wilderness will exult, the wasteland will rejoice and bloom’. We are likewise called to keep the light of hope burning in the world’s night. Remember the prophet’s words: ‘Strengthen all weary hands, steady all trembling knees.’ By the power of God’s grace, we — in ourselves powerless — are capable of anything.
In our prelature we live, thank God, in tranquillity and peace. But we, too, have urgent tasks that await us. The faith is vanishing from our nation, from Europe. We who have been gifted with faith are responsible for deepening it and passing it on. We must go deep. A tree without solid roots will simply dry up in the present climate. We need the sacramental grace the Church communicates. We need the Word of God and the Church’s doctrine. And we need one another to create real, nourishing, joyful communities. In that regard, may I draw attention to an exhortation given in today’s second reading: ‘Do not make complaints against one another!’ Little is more detrimental to fellowship than gossip and rumours, whether by whispers behind others’ backs or by trolling on the internet. Let us set ourselves a high standard. If we see injustice, we shall not sweep it under the carpet. But we shall confront it in an adult and responsible way, not by tittle-tattle. The more deeply we are rooted in Christ, the more we will view others compassionately while marvelling at the Lord’s indulgence towards ourselves. The following story is told about a saint among the Desert Fathers, Abba Bessarion: ‘A brother who had sinned was driven out of the church. Abba Bessarion rose and followed him out, for he said, ‘I also am a sinner’.’ If we learn to live like this, the kingdom of God will be in our midst.
God’s love for us, revealed in Christ, is boundless. May we by faithful lives witness to it in our yearning world. The Lord give you joy in abundance! Blessed Christmas!
♰Erik Varden ocso, Bishop of Trondheim
Icon of Abba Bessarion, about whom this other story is also told:
Abba Doulas, the disciple of Abba Bessarion said: One day when we were walking beside the sea I was thirsty and I said to Abba Bessarion, “Father, I am very thirsty.” He said a prayer and said to me, “Drink some of the sea water.” The water proved sweet when I drank some. I even poured some into a leather bottle for fear of being thirsty later on. Seeing this, the old man asked me why I was taking some. I said to him, “Forgive me, it is for fear of being thirsty later on.” Then the old man said, “God is here, God is everywhere.”