Third Sunday of Advent: Rejoice, the Lord is Near!

Third Sunday of Advent: Rejoice, the Lord is Near! December 13, 2015

My homily for Gaudete Sunday.    This Sunday my parish celebrated the feast of Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe with a big bilingual mass.  It was beautiful but I am a bit sad from this experience—an odd sensation for this Sunday!  Maybe I will write about this later in the week.  For now, however, my latest offering.  This one has been hard to wrap my head around:  for a long time I found the gospel to be at odds with the first two readings.     As always, your feedback is welcome and appreciated.

Today, Gaudete Sunday, marks a turning point in the Advent season.  Our liturgical color, purple, is changed for this Sunday to pink (or “rose” as more than one priest has insisted to me privately!) and the first two readings call upon us to celebrate.  St. Paul, in the second reading, is emphatic:  “Rejoice!  I say it again: Rejoice!”  In my mind’s eye I can hear him as he is dictating this letter, as his voice rises in command to the far off church in Philippi:  my people, you must rejoice with me today!  To fully understand this command, we must remember that Paul is writing from Rome, where he is under arrest, awaiting trial.   His situation is bleak, but he wants to share his joy.

The prophet Zephaniah in the first reading writes in the same vein.  Zephaniah was a prophet during the reign of king Josiah, during the last decades of the kingdom of Israel.   He begins his prophecies by warning of the coming of the Day of the Lord, when God, angry because of the idolatry practiced by the Israelites, will “sweep everything away off the face of the Earth”.   Jerusalem will be destroyed, and the people led off into captivity.  But he concludes these horrifying predictions with a hymn of praise.  He commands them to rejoice: “Shout with joy, O daughter Zion…be glad and exult with all your heart!” 

In both cases, the reason for rejoicing, despite Paul’s imprisonment or the impending doom facing Israel, is the same.  “The Lord is among you!”  writes Zephaniah;  “The Lord is near” echoes Paul. This is the promise of Christmas, the feast of the Incarnation:  a virgin will bear a son, named Emmanuel, meaning “God is with us!”  For the prophet Zephaniah, this is the sure promise of the Spirit, a cause for ultimate hope in the face of immediate catastrophe and loss.   For St. Paul, who may never have seen Jesus in the  flesh, it is the mystery of the resurrection promise:  “Behold, I am with you always, until the very end of the world.”  Paul, living in the in-between times between the first and second coming of Jesus, trusts in God’s promise,  knowing that he and the community at Philippi are living as part of the Kingdom of God now, even while they await glory of the world to come.

If the circumstances of Zephaniah and St. Paul make their call to rejoicing more difficult to understand, then John the Baptist turns this on its head.  He has come to proclaim the good news, the immanent appearance of Jesus.   But in today’s gospel he does not sound a joyful note.  Instead, he grimly warns his audience:  “the chaff will burn in unquenchable fire!”  And before this, when the crowds ask what to do, his advice is stern.  He sounds more like a parent insisting that they eat their vegetables than he does, in the words of St. Francis of Assisi, like a joyful herald of the great King.

To understand what John is saying, we must put this passage into the broader context of John’s preaching.  In last week’s gospel we heard John announce a time of joy: the promised one of Israel was at hand, all people will see the salvation of God!  But he also urged his listeners to “prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths!”  So in today’s reading he is not simply finding fault with the crowds; he is answering their heartfelt plea:  “What should we do?”  How do we prepare the way of the Lord?

His advice to them is concrete and specific:  everyone with extra clothes and food to spare should share what they have with the poor.  Those with authority—tax collectors, soldiers—must serve the common good and perform their duties justly.  Do not think only of yourselves:  think of others.    The message to us, today, who are preparing for the second coming of Jesus, the same.   Where you are right now in life, do God’s will by acting with justice and mercy.   Strive to make God’s justice—not human justice, with all its failings, but God’s justice—present in our lives right now.

This means addressing the great problems that face us today:  inequality, poverty, racism, climate change.  Each of us has the ability, in some small way, to make a difference.  But equally importantly, it means that we are called to treat the people we interact with every day with kindness, humility and fairness.  We are called to prepare the way of the Lord by loving and respecting the dignity of our family members, our co-workers, our employees, the bank teller, the waitress who serves us lunch, the clerk in the mall.    Be patient, forgive wrongs, smile more and complain less!  Offer a helping hand, an attentive ear, a shoulder to cry on.  In this way, as Dorothy Day put it, we will, little by little, build up a new world within the shell of the old.  We will prepare the way of the Lord!

And, paradoxically, by emptying ourselves in this way, we will find ourselves filled with God’s joy.  “The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding” will fill our hearts and minds.  We will still have problems, and perhaps hardship and suffering.  But we will know that the Lord is near.  In this we will find joy and we will rejoice!  I say again, we will rejoice!

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