The Word in the Eucharist: Third Sunday in Advent
This is the “Gaudete” (rejoice) Sunday. The Church demonstrates her ancient wisdom today by celebrating a Sunday of Joy, two weeks before Christmas, to counteract our negative gloominess. The Christmas season, forecasting peacefulness, often brings the opposite. Even if we don’t understand the causes, we all experience to some degree a kind of discouragement at this time of year. This Christmas neurosis surely is somehow associated with personal problems or disorders; one can hardly attribute them to the Advent season. Depression at Christmas, or on any other holy day, cannot possibly result from that particular ceñebration. Yet, isn’t it true that there can be a connexion between these traumas and our not vieweing Christmas in the only light in which it makes sense, namely the light of faith?
How can we acquire a true perspective of Christmas? In the face of self-conflict, guilt feelings, loneliness, financial anxieties, family worries, and all the other ills that seem so visible at this time of year, how can we arrive at the knowledge and the feeling that Christmas, celebrated in faith, can yield an inner peace, indeed a joy, that helps us rise from our sadness, loneliness or anxiety, to the certainty that the Lord does care and will continue to care for us? Prayer is the key; sincere prayer so that, as today’s readings emphasize, we may come to realize that the Lord our God is in our midst, to renew us with his love, to give us gladness of heart. Christmas joy is joy in and with Christ! Prophet Zephaniah sets the desired mood (1st reading): Shout for joy, O daughter Zion, sing joyfully, O Israel. And St. Paul cheers the Philippians (2nd read.): Rejoice in the Lord, always... Dismiss all anxiety from your minds.
The reaction of the crowds to the preaching and baptism of John the Baptist is very important. They ask one after the other a fundamental question: What are we to do? They are looking for guidance on how to live, while seriously awaiting the coming of the Messiah. Waiting is more than a passive attitude in which God does everything. On the contrary, we wait as if everything depended on us, while having the wisdomn to know that in the end all depends on God’s grace. The wise counsel of John has a timeless ring to it.
The Baptist offers advice to the crowd, the tax collectors, and the soldiers. The diversity of people who came to listen to him shows how general was the hope for a better world. To the Pharisees and Sadducees, that is, to those who thought themselves to be right with God, John has severely pointed out that external practices have no value without inner conversion. To the crowd, he now preaches sharing, mutual love, practical concern for justice. In order to prepare for the coming of the Promised One, the crowd has only to do deeds of justice. Their just acts would identify them as wheat instead of chaff. Whatever you are doing, do it well, carefully and justly. No upsetting demands for a radical change. Just a sensitive but keen exhortation to tend to what is forthcoming.
John is approached by two groups whose professions were questionable to the Pharisees: the tax collectors, who customarily made handsome profits by overcharging their compatriots; and the Jewish soldiers, who belonged to the Roman peace-keeping force. John does not demand them to give up their jobs, but they must act fairly and honestly.
What is common in the answer John gives to all three groups? They are told to change. Conversion is possible for everyone: Everyone has the opportunity to change. The Promised One is interested in conversion. It makes no difference whether we are part of the crowd, a tax collector, a soldier, a business person, a salesman, a chairperson of the board, black, yellow, red, brown, or white. What makes the difference, what identifies the wheat from the chaff, is how righteous each person is.