13 Dec 2020

St. Mary’s Basilica Sydney + livestream, 13 December 2020

The Ode to Joy appears like a burst of sunlight in the fourth movement of Beethoven’s ninth and last symphony (Symphony No. 9 in D minor, Op. 125). His decision to bring soloists and a choir into an orchestral symphony was revolutionary, giving soaring voice to Friedrich Schiller’s poem. It begins “Freude, schöner Götterfunken” – Joy, beautiful spark of divinity – and, like Pope Francis’ recent encyclical Fratelli Tutti, sings the praises of fraternity and friendship.[1] Though it draws upon pre-Christian allusions and post-Christian French revolutionary thought, the song finishes with the Christian call for all men to become brothers embraced by the one loving Father in heaven. Born 250 years ago this week and possibly today, Beethoven’s Ode also draws upon the very text from Isaiah then used for the Introit of Laetare Sunday.[2] “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy and be suckled by her.”

Yet after the year we’ve had it can seem almost tone-deaf to be singing odes to joy or celebrating Rejoicing Sunday. In times like these how can we read without irony the Prophet’s declaration “I exult for joy in the Lord” or the Apostle’s exhortation to “be happy at all times”? (Isa 61:1-2,10-11; 1 Thess 5:16-24) Well, before anyone accuses Isaiah of being a blind optimist, let’s remember that all the dirges of the Suffering Servant used in Holy Week come from him (Isa 42:1-4; 49:1-6; 50:4-7; 52:13-53:12). As for Paul, he readily catalogued his exhausting labours, many imprisonments, and beatings, once with stones, three times with rods and five times the 39 lashes. He suffered temporary blindness, snakebite, an enduring ‘thorn in the flesh’, shipwreck and threats on every side. He reported often being sleepless, cold, starving or anxious.[3] Far from being a rosy-eyed romantic, Paul often comes across more as a whinger.

© heartlight.org

The paradox of biblical joy is that Paul, for all his hardships, always managed to give thanks for blessings received from God or fruits of the Spirit demonstrated by the disciples. Indeed, it was Paul who recorded the Church’s earliest hymns and doxologies, her first odes to joy.[4] Paul was no simple optimist or pessimist – and no true Christian can be either. He was a realist so supremely confident in God’s grace that earthly challenges could not overcome him. That’s how Christian joy works.

Secondly, when our tradition speaks of joy, it doesn’t mean fleeting physical pleasures or emotional highs. Contentment is found in doing what is good or patiently enduring what is not. This kind of joy is entirely consistent with unpleasant experiences or feeling low, indeed is often experienced precisely in the face of these very things. By human virtue and divine grace people get through. So Isaiah talks this morning of bringing joy to the poor, broken-hearted or imprisoned, whether by raising them out of these states or by helping them endure hardships in good spirit and transcend them. So, too, Paul described joy as a fruit of the Spirit and said “I am joyful amidst infirmities, reproaches, needs, persecution or distress, for Christ’s sake. For when I am weak, then I am strong.” (Gal 5:22-23; 2Cor 12:10)  

A third aspect of Christian joy is that it comes, not just as a feeling or even a graced disposition, but above all in person. Jesus, the Man of Sorrows, joins us in the depths of our infirmities and grief,[5] not as an uninterested observer, but as one of us, as vulnerable and hurt as we are; not as a disinterested observer either, but as someone so thoroughly invested in us He makes our happiness His own, our salvation His life’s work. But He can only bring salvation because He is God, sharing in the infinite happiness of the Father (cf. Prov 8:30-31). His coming among us is hailed as “news of great joy”, He “rejoices in the Holy Spirit” and “for the joy that was set before him he endures the cross”.[6] He compared himself with a bridegroom on his wedding day,[7]  and had so much fun that his critics dismissed Him as a party animal! (Lk 7:34) Jesus was just too happy for their liking!

Fourthly, if Jesus is joy, sharing His life is sharing in a deep spiritual happiness. “You have sorrow now, but I will see you again,” He promised, “and when I do your hearts will rejoice, with a joy no one can take from you.” Elsewhere he says: “Rejoice in that day, and leap for joy, for your reward is great in heaven”. And again: “These things I have spoken to you so that my joy may be in you, and your joy may be complete.[8]

Our Gaudete wisdom is that Jesus is precisely the shot in the arm we need, the ode we must sing, in time of COVID. Not because He will instantly make everything nice, but because He enables us to face the harsh realities with confidence; not because everything will always feel good, but because He will enable us to do those good things and endure those hard things that we must to be truly happy. To encounter Him is to encounter supreme Joy. As Paul told Timothy, ours “is the glorious Gospel of the happy God” (1Tim 1:11).[9]

Which brings me to our Archdiocesan Mission Plan, Go Make Disciples,[10] launched across the Archdiocese this weekend: https://www.gomakedisciples.org.au

After our extensive Parish 2020 consultations, research and discernment, our plan has at last crystallised and by a happy providence is being published just when our churches are reopening more fully and Catholics being called to Come Home to Mass.[11]

But to what kind of a Church are people being called? The Church in Sydney is entering into a phase of renewal with the goal of being the best Church we can be for returnees and newcomers. So we start afresh with Christ’s great commission to “go and make disciples of all nations, baptising them… teaching them… and remembering me” to them (Mt 28:18-20). Ours must be a Church that evangelises and forms, builds community and leads, and worships the happy God. Go Make Disciples invites each of us by God’s grace to deepen our discipleship, and calls every community of disciples to embrace the evangelising mission of Jesus, reaching out to others, inviting them through word and deed to encounter the joy of the Gospel.

I invite you to have a look at our Mission Plan on our website, and pray and reflect on the part you might play.


In addition to my pastoral letter calling people home to Mass, we have a summary of the pastoral plan available at all the doors. The Church in Sydney needs your gifts and generosity if we are to renew our parishes, revitalise our mission, and be the Church God is calling us to be in the 2020s and beyond. Then we shall hear those Gaudete words of Jesus, “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your master.” (Mt 25:21,23)

[1] Pope Francis, Fratelli Tutti: Encyclical on Fraternity and Social Friendship (2020) http://www.vatican.va/content/francesco/en/ encyclicals/documents/papa-francesco_20201003_enciclica-fratelli-tutti.html

[2] Isa 66:10-11: “Rejoice with Jerusalem, and be glad for her, all you who love her; rejoice with her in joy, all you who mourn over her;that you may suck and be satisfied with her consoling breasts; that you may drink deeply with delight from the abundance of her glory.” The Ode likewise calls upon all creatures to “drink of joy at nature’s breasts”.

[3] Acts 9:23,29; 13:50; 14:5,19; 15:11,39; 16:23,39; 17:5-10,18,23-4; 18:12; 19:23-41; 20:3; 21:27-30; 22:24-29; 23:1-8,12-22; 23:33-27:2; 27:41-28:1; 28:3-5,13-15; Rom 9:2; Gal 4:13; 5:11; 6:7; 1Cor 15:30; 2Cor 1:8; 4:8-13; 6:3-10; 11:23-29; 12:7,10; 2Tim 1:15; 3:10-12; 4:6-8.

[4] Lori Colbo, “The Apostle Paul: A Life of Suffering and Gratitude,” LetterPile, 9 September 2020 https://letterpile.com/religion/The-Virtue-of-Gratitude

[5] e.g. Heb 4:15; Mt 5:4; Lk 6:21; 22:44; Jn 11:33-8.

[6] Ps 21:6; 45:7; Isa 61:1; Lk 2:10; 4:18; 10:20-22; Heb 1:9; 12:2.

[7] Mk 2:19-20; Mt 9:15; Lk 5:34-5; cf. Mt 25:1-13; Jn 3:29 etc.

[8] Mt 5:12; Lk 6:23; 10:20; Jn 15:11; 16:22-24; 17:13.

[9] David Matthis, “Oh the Deep, Deep Joy of Jesus,” Desiring God 28 June 2018 https://www.desiringgod.org/articles/oh-the-deep-deep-joy-of-jesus

[10] https://vimeo.com/488759183/fb488a9a7c

[11] Anthony Fisher OP, Come Home to Mass 13 December 2020 http://bit.ly/comebacktomass

Welcome to St Mary’s Cathedral on this ‘Gaudete’ or Rejoicing Sunday when the Church anticipates Christmas by donning the rose hues of joy. Among our causes for joy today is the recent easing of COVID safety restrictions upon worship. Now the two-square-metre rule is the only restriction on numbers at Mass, indoors or out. But we continue to observe registration and hygiene requirements, and keep praying for an end to the pandemic: we know we are not out of the COVID woods yet.

Now that everyone can return to church, I have today rescinded the dispensation from the Sunday obligation. Under canon 1247 attendance at Mass on Sundays and in Australia on Christmas Day and the Assumption is obligatory. Of course, we want people to come to Mass out of love more than obligation, but love also brings responsibilities. Those of great age, or with health conditions, or otherwise anxious about COVID-19 may stay home and keep holy the Sunday Sabbath another way. We will continue to livestream this Mass each Sunday so people who can’t get to Mass may engage with the readings, music and homily, pray with those of us that are here, and make a spiritual communion. My pastoral letter, Come Home to Mass,[i] is available at the doors of the cathedral and on the web: https://www.sydneycatholic.org

[i] Anthony Fisher OP, Come Home to Mass 13 December 2020 http://bit.ly/comebacktomass