Commentary on Zephaniah 3:14-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
THE ADVENT SEASON is basically a penitential period. And therefore the colour of the vestments, as in Lent, is purple or violet. It is a time when we are invited through fasting or some other form of self-denial to prepare ourselves to celebrate Christmas by a genuine experience of repentance and renewal. However, in Advent as in Lent, the Church cannot refrain from “jumping the gun”, so to speak, by anticipating, if only briefly, the coming mood of celebration.
So this Sunday is often referred to as “Gaudete Sunday” from the first word of the Entrance Antiphon in the Latin original, Gaudete (“Rejoice!”). And indeed today’s Mass text is suffused with expressions of joy and jubilation. Even the colour of the vestments can be modified from penitential purple to a pinkish colour (officially termed “rose”).
“Rejoice in the Lord always,” says the Entrance Antiphon. (If we sing our opening hymn, it should reflect the same mood.) “Shout for joy… Rejoice, exult with all your heart” is the invitation of the First Reading from the prophet Zephaniah. “[The Lord] will exult with joy over you, he will renew you by his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival…”
“Sing and shout for joy for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel” is the response to the Psalm and, in the Second Reading, Paul invites the Christians of Philippi: “I want you to be happy, always happy in the Lord; I repeat, what I want is your happiness…”
The Gospel is more low-key but there also it tells us that “a feeling of expectancy had grown among the people…”
A basic mood
Joy should, in fact, be the basic mood of the Christian. It should not be something artificial or forced but something that bubbles up naturally from our sharing Christ’s vision of life. Joy should be the normal experience of the Christian but there are quite a few who unfortunately do not have that experience or conviction.
At times one gets the impression that it is not the experience of many Christians, who somehow have come to believe that religion is a serious business, that one is not living a good Christian life unless it is full of sacrifices, that Christianity means giving up many of the pleasure that are available to non-Christians. They seem to think that being a Christian means living a half life as the price for a better one to come.
Karl Marx saw religion as the “opium of the people”, meaning the poorer classes. Religion, he believed, worked as a kind of anaesthetic or opiate, devised by the rich and privileged, which helped the poor accept the miseries and injustices of the present life on the understanding that there was something much better on the far side of the grave.
All this is a great pity because the whole purpose of Jesus’ coming was to bring freedom, joy and peace to people not only in the future but here and now. No one is meant to be more free than the Christian who follows Christ not in pain but in joy and enthusiasm. I am not a Catholic because I have to be; I am a Catholic because I could not imagine myself being anything else. We share the words of Peter to Jesus: “Where can we go? You have the words that give life.”
There used to be a saying, “A sad saint is a sad kind of saint.” A sad Christian is a contradiction in terms. That is not to say that there are not in any Christian life – as in any normal person’s life – times of pain, of sickness, of failure, of great loss. Grieving and letting go is an important part of life but these experiences will only bring temporary setbacks.
Every experience, if we can only realise it, is touched by God and has its meaning. Once that meaning is found and accepted, inner joy and peace can return. And the joy we are talking about is not something external. It has little to do with the high jinks we see during a socialising party or after our team wins a big match. Much of that can be a kind of temporary escape from lives that are experienced as boring, oppressive and unfree.
Christian joy or happiness is deep down in the heart and is not incompatible with physical and emotional pain or difficult external circumstances. It is, as Jesus says, something that no one can take away from us. And as Fr Tony de Mello says in his book “Awareness”: We have everything we need here and now to be happy. The problem is that we identify our happiness with people or things we don’t have and often can’t have.
What are we to do?
Today’s Gospel speaks of the expected coming of Jesus. This coming is being proclaimed by John the Baptist as he preaches by the waters of the River Jordan. After having heard what John had to say, his hearers asked a very sensible question: “What must we do, then?” It is a question we might well ask ourselves as we prepare for the coming of Jesus this Christmas. Repentance calls for a change in behaviour and not just regret for the past.
Luke describes three kinds of people who are listening to John the Baptist: the crowd in general; tax collectors; and soldiers. John answers each of them according to their way of life. To the ordinary people, he tells them to share what they have – their clothes and food – with those who are in need. If they are really sorry for their sins, that is, if they really want to change their lives, they will become brothers and sisters to others – even total strangers. We might consider what we could share with others this Christmas.
Tax collectors had a rather bad reputation in Jesus’ time. The Romans used to farm out the right to collect taxes to private individuals. These would pay a lump sum to the government and were then left to their own devices to get back that money – and make a profit besides. Needless to say, such a system led to a good deal of extortion. There were no anti-corruption agencies in those days! John tells them to be just in what they collected.
Soldiers, too, were not very popular. The advice John gives sounds just as relevant today as it did then: “No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your official pay!”
Was John the Messiah?
After hearing such wise and sensible teaching, the people were beginning to wonder if John was not actually the Messiah himself. As mentioned earlier, there was a great mood of expectation that the Messiah’s appearance was imminent.
John, however, immediately disabuses them. He is certainly not the Messiah, the Saviour King that is to come. The real Messiah will be much greater. John will not even be worthy to untie the laces of his sandals – the work of a slave for his master.
John only baptises with water but the Messiah will baptise with the Holy Spirit and fire. That fire purifies what is good and destroys what is evil. It is a sign of God’s power and God’s loving presence (remember the pillar of fire that accompanied the Jews at night in the desert? Or the fire of the Spirit coming down on the disciples after the resurrection?).
And our role is not unlike that of John the Baptist. For it is also our task as Christians – whether lay persons, religious or priests – to bring people to genuine conversion, a conversion that brings them face to face with Jesus and God and also a conversion that brings a real joy and happiness into their lives.
Our role as ‘precursors’
Parents, especially Christian parents, have this role. They gradually form their children to have the Christian spirit and outlook on life. A Christian family will be one of real joy. A place to which each member returns with joyful anticipation and expectancy, in other words, a real home.
Teachers, too, are like John the Baptist. A Christian teacher is always aware of being Christian in the presence of students, irrespective of the subject being taught. After the student has long graduated, he may not remember a word from those lessons, he may never in his later career have used the knowledge he was given but he will remember the personality of his teacher. Some teachers are remembered with affection forever; others are best forgotten.
Whatever we are – parents, teachers, civil servants, employers, doing business, self-employed – we need to remember that we are God’s instruments. We are not making people do what we say, forcing them to behave in a certain way, still less to be just like us. Our aim is, like John the Baptist, to lead people to the feet of Jesus that they may know him personally as Saviour, Lord, Brother and Friend. Our role is, like John the Baptist, to step aside once the introductions are over and leave Jesus to do his work.
At the same time, Jesus does need our co-operation. Jesus works through every parent and every teacher and everyone who has a call to form people. Peter and Andrew began as John the Baptist’s disciples until they met Jesus. Then they left John and walked with Jesus. In turn, they brought other people to know and experience Jesus. That is the pattern and meaning of evangelisation, of bringing the Gospel to others.