SFX Bulletin, 30 November 2014 “Jolly” would be the expected word for this well-known carol. However, when we listen to Jesus’ words in today’s gospel telling us four times to “Stay awake” and “be on your guard” (Mk. 13:33,34,35,37), we cannot help but consider if this seasonal “jolliness” is what Jesus is alerting us to and what Our Lord feels may be wrong with some festive lightheartedness?
When we examine the lyrics of this popular carol, we find Our Lord’s warning justified. Composed in the 19th century with the pub-dance rhythm for its music, the original lyrics of the carol was set around indulgent merry-making – “drain the barrel…laughing, quaffing all together” – hardly the type of song any parent would want their child to learn. These lyrics on hearty drinking were later replaced with dressing up, “don we now our gay apparel”. One would expect a Christmas carol to sing of the Christ-child or the awesome wonder that God had indeed “torn the heavens opened and come down” (cf. Isa. 64:1) to be our perfect atoning sacrifice to offer to God.
This carol is a simple example of how Christmas – the inauguration of the new creation through Christ – can be turned into an occasion of merry-making for its own sake and not to glorify God’s saving help. Jesus’ call to “stay awake” and “be on guard” refers in part to such practices and distractions that can lure us away from him. Without “staying awake” and “being on guard”, we could all end up celebrating Christmas like non-believers – disinterested in the paschal work of Jesus and wanting Jesus to remain as the sweet new-born never to grow up to speak words of warning and repentance to us. Words we all humbly need to hear everyday if we are to truly mature as Christians.
Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI says that Advent returns every year to remind us of the “proper orientation” of life – our lives are to be directed towards “the face of God…the master (who is) Father and a Friend” (Angelus, 27 November 2011). This “Father and Friend” sent us his only son to be born to die for us. By his death, and with our baptism into his death, the “gifts of the Spirit” have now come to us to “keep (us) steady and without blame until the last day” (1 Cor. 1:7-8). The Catechism tells us that a prayer life is key if we are to remain “blameless”, “No testing has overtaken you that is not common to man. God is faithful, and he will not let you be tempted beyond your strength…such a battle and such a victory become possible only through prayer. It is by his prayer that Jesus vanquishes the Tempter, both at the outset of his public mission and in the ultimate struggle of his agony” (CCC2848-2849).
Christmas is celebrated in Singapore by shopping and feasting. The Church celebrates it by asking us to be “Bearers of the Good News”. We are reminded to follow Mother Mary’s example and hurry to those in need of the Good News – “those who are losing hope, feeling unloved or experiencing low self-esteem” (Archbishop William Goh, Advent Message, 2014).
Amidst this season’s “jolliness”, let us be “Bearers of the Good News” by compassionately addressing this “jolliness” for what it is - a cry for lasting joy and happiness. Let us enlighten others that true joy rests in God alone, “You have formed us for Yourself, and our hearts are restless till they find rest in You” (St. Augustine, Confessions).
“Tis the season to be jolly…”? Yes, certainly! This is the season to rejoice but not because we have yet another festival for partying. Rather, because God has blessed us with the abundance to gather people together to hear the true Christmas story over the sharing of food and drinks. This great story is that “God wants to join man to his Son, Jesus Christ” (cf. 1 Cor. 1:9). Are we willing to prayerfully encounter the adult Jesus this Advent and then, like Mary, joyfully bring him to birth in others?