Zephaniah 3:14–18a; Philippians 4:4–7; Luke 3:10–18
Today we celebrate the third Sunday of Advent, which is called Gaudete Sunday, from the Latin translation of Philippians 4. “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Always rejoice. We depart from the somber tone of this penitential season for a bit to celebrate the light that is dawning on us.
The readings today give us our marching orders for Advent and beyond. The Latin word adventus, the source of our English term, indicates an approach or onset. Advent is the onset of Christ’s coming again. As our readings suggest, it is a time of hope, of looking forward to a joyous event, but not necessarily from the perspective of people who are now experiencing joy. Often the expectation of the Messiah’s coming dawns when His people are at their lowest, when they feel bereft and oppressed.
Zephaniah prophecies during the reign of Josiah, a time when the king is attempting to bring the kingdom back from its fall into idolatry. The Assyrians have been chipping away at the Kingdom of Judea and demanding their tribute, which always means an oppressive tax on the people. All of these events are considered to be the result of the sins of the People of Israel. But Zephaniah tells them that God is letting go of that penalty and that they will be delivered from their oppression. In the midst of their strife, they are called to rejoice in their deliverance.
The letter of St. Paul to the Philippians is much the same. Paul is writing from prison, as Fr. Jerry mentioned last week. Now Paul wasn’t exactly a popular figure in Philippi, at least not with those outside the Church. If you remember the account in Acts, he expels a spirit from a slave girl who is constantly prophesying in a loud voice that Paul and his companions served the Most High God. Her owners weren’t too happy about that. St. Paul was pretty adept at ticking off the local populace and bringing their wrath upon him. But even he is telling the Philippians, whom he obviously loves, to be joyful. He knows that all of this tribulation has a purpose. We can obsesses about our trials, or we can rejoice because we know the one who has overcome the world.
And then there are those of us who perhaps dwell too much on where we’ve been rather than where we’re going. John the Baptist’s message in the gospel reading addresses these who have come to recognize their need to repent from their past lives. John doesn’t shake his head and say, “Tsk, tsk. I’m sorry, but you guys are toast.” He gives them concrete steps on the right path. First he tells them to repent, and then he gives them their marching orders.
Clothe the naked. Feed the hungry. Give what you have in excess to the poor.
And these actions help the penitent to grow in holiness. St. John Chrysostom said that “the poor are physicians, and their hands are an ointment for your wounds.” And if you’ve ever worked with the truly poor, or if you’ve ever visited the sick, or fed someone who was hungry, you’ve experienced it—that sense that what little you’ve done actually helped you more than it helped the other because it helped you to move outside of yourself and to recognize Christ in the other. Regardless of where you’ve been, your sins are old news, and they are swept away. John is saying, “All of that past stuff was true, but you are forgiven. Now go and leave all of that behind. Go and sin no more.” That is the very message of mercy that the Holy Father has challenged us to proclaim in this Jubilee year of mercy.
It’s a message that hits home for me. I myself have been in this position. I was not always that man you see in front of you now—holy, righteous, and dashingly handsome.
But seriously, I am a far different person now than I was in my young adult life. I drifted away from the Catholic faith in my late teens, and I wandered for a long time—about 20 years. I did plenty of things of which I’m not proud. And I could go on carrying those failures as many of us do. But the call to repentance is not a call to self-judgment and condemnation. It is a call to recognition and conviction and then, ultimately… to mercy… to forgiveness… to healing. To letting go and moving on.
That’s what Advent and Lent are all about—helping us to recognize our brokenness; helping us to recognize our need for healing; helping us to recognize our need for salvation. Thank God that salvation has come, and in this season, we celebrate the fact that He is coming again.
But like it was for the Israelites in our first reading, there are plenty of reasons for anxiety. If we look around our world, we can find many reasons to be fearful and anxious. The last year has seen a mass exodus of refugees from areas of conflict, and areas that have been historically Christian since the first century are seeing their native Christian populations disappear. We’re seeing an increase of terrorist violence all over the world, even in our own back yard. Our political rhetoric has become increasingly bombastic and intolerant. It seems like we can’t have a civil conversation in a public arena without someone barging in, not to engage in dialogue, but only to disrupt. We seem to have less and less of a shared culture and shared morality on which to base our decisions.
Our world is more chaotic than ever.
Or at least than we remember in our lifetimes.
The fact is, every era encounters these moments of chaos and doubt. Look at the letters of St. Paul. Look at the words of the prophets like Zephaniah. Plus çe change, plus c’est le même chose. The more things change, the more they stay the same.
We’re not really seeing anything new. We’re seeing version 21.15 of the same old thing.
Which means we’re still seeing the same result of our fallen nature playing itself out. We’re still seeing those same human failings that we’ve always seen. We’re still seeing the effects of sin and the wounds they create in our lives and the lives of the people we love.
But we still also encounter the effects of redemption in our world. We still encounter those moments of grace individually and collectively. We have that moment of grace when we set aside our own needs to take care of the homeless, or to visit the sick, or to comfort others who are in pain. We watch those flash mob videos of people singing the Alleluia chorus in a midwest mall or in a European market square.
We have those moments when we collectively stand up and say, “No, we will not engage in persecution of the others in our midst.”
“No, we will not tolerate the neglect of the homeless in our midst.”
“No, we will not euthanize the old and weak, or abort the young, or neglect the alien.”
We have moments of grace, and we have to remember that the story is not over. Advent is here to remind us of that. The man who came here and suffered that defeat (point to the crucifix), has overcome the world. And He is coming again on the clouds in power and glory to make an end of all defeat. And He comes to this altar today to make us one.
And that is why we rejoice.