This third Sunday of Advent is traditionally called Gaudete Sunday – a rejoicing reflected in rose vestments and the choice of Scriptures. We are more than halfway through our season of vigilant preparation and persevering prayer, as we ready ourselves to both celebrate the coming of Christ in history and look forward to his return in glory. For Christians, this theme of rejoicing lies at the heart of our faith. Even if we are struggling with life’s great issues, we are still called to be people of joy and to be ready to share that joy with others.
So what does this spiritual or holy joy look like? Clearly, it is not the same as pleasure or human satisfaction – these are emotions that are short-lived and derived from the external, they are what we perceive and experience. Spiritual joy arises from our interior life – our relationship with the divine. Like a well bubbling up from the depths of the earth, spiritual joy wells up even in the midst of life’s struggles and becomes the hallmark of the true Christian.
Zephaniah is exultant in his description of God’s faithfulness and promise. Saint Paul, too, wants his community in Philippi to be joyful, not with a superficial rejoicing but with a joy that flows from the Lord as they await his imminent return in glory. To maintain this joy, Paul reminds them to stay prayerful at all times.
Yet in the midst of all this rejoicing, we hear another voice –the Baptist calling us to repentance and justice But it is the question put to John that catches our attention – what should we do? It’s a practical question, and John has practical answers. They are not to retreat from life, but be converted to a just way of living. They are not simply to put on sack-cloth and ashes or retreat to the Temple, but be sensitive to the needs of justice – to be sharers rather than takers. Tax-collectors are not to resign but be just, soldiers are not told to desert but to use their power fairly. This is a Gospel of people power, where the message can change the very face of the world.
And what must we do? How can we bring about change in our world? As spouses and family members, we can strive to love with a God-like love. As parents and guardians, we can teach our children that their true value lies not in material things or the latest gadget or brand, but in how they treat others and serve the less fortunate. As civic-minded people, by using our freedom to serve our community. As employers and employees, by paying a just wage and working hard. And as Christians, by being faithful to the Gospel and rejoicing in God’s presence and promise! The list is endless – and it is only when we are faithful to Christ that we will know real joy and understand the challenging hope of Advent.
GETTING READY FOR CHRISTMAS
One day a preacher on the Melbourne Yarra Bank tried to make real for his listeners, the message of John the Baptist today. ‘If you had two houses,’ he said, ‘you would give one of them away to the poor, wouldn’t you?’ ‘Oh, yes,’ said the man closest to him, I certainly would.’ The preacher went on: ‘And if you had two motor cars, you would keep one and give the other away, wouldn’t you?’ ‘Yes, of course’, said the same man. The preacher continued. ‘And if you had two shirts, you would give one away, wouldn’t you?’ ‘Just a minute,’ said the man this time, ‘I haven’t got two houses. I haven’t got two motor cars. But I have got two shirts. I’m not so sure now that I would give one away.’
This time the message hit home. Here was something personal, something pointed, something practical. Here was a real challenge that triggered off a genuine struggle to respond to the demands of the message.
Something like this is happening to the people who go out to the desert to listen to the preaching of John the Baptist. He implores them to turn away from sin and turn to God, and to express their sorrow for their sins and be forgiven by being washed in the waters of the Jordan River. He is offering them what they know deep down they really need – a brand new start, a brand new way of living. But they are not sure what it all entails.
The people in general and particular groups among them ask John the same question: ‘What must we do, then?’ They receive answers which boil down to three straight-forward rules of life: – 1. Share with others both food and clothing. 2. Be fair and just in your dealings with others, never cheating anyone. 3. Don’t bully others or push them around.
The power of John’s preaching and personality makes a deep impression on the crowds. They begin to ask one another: ‘Can this be God’s chosen leader, the messiah?’ John puts them right: ‘I have washed you with water,’ he says, ‘as a sign that your hearts should be made clean. But someone stronger than I is on his way; I am not good enough even to bend down like a slave and untie his sandals. He will bring you the full power of God, the Holy Spirit. He’ll really change your mind, your heart, your attitudes, your behaviour, your whole self. He’ll be like a farmer at harvest when, wooden shovel in hand, he’s cleaning the grain on his threshing floor – storing the wheat in the barn and making a bonfire of the straw.’
This message of John the Baptist hits the spot with us. We are living in the time of the first coming of the Messiah, his coming at Bethlehem. Right now we are preparing to celebrate his birth, and, as our Opening Prayer puts it today, to celebrate it with love and thanksgiving.
So, our time of preparation for the feast of Christmas is much more than getting in the goodies for eating and drinking and making merry on Christmas Day. It’s a time for heeding the message of John the Baptist on the meaning of God’s special coming into our lives in the person of His Son.
So we are led to ask ourselves. 1. How widely and deeply will I share with other people this Christmas, especially with those who are the poorest and the most neglected in my community? 2. How fair and just am I going to be with the people in my life? 3. Will I stop once and for all putting others down, hurting their feelings, or bossing them around?
‘The Lord is very near,’ St Paul reminds us in the second Reading. So near in fact that the other Readings insist: ‘The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst’, and ‘among you is the great and Holy One of Israel’.
The presence and the gift of Jesus Christ to us invite us to make a triple response. In the first place, God says to us in the Readings, ‘Shout for joy … shout aloud’, ‘cry out with joy and gladness’, ‘rejoice, exult with all your heart’, ‘be happy, always happy in the Lord’. In the second place, God asks us to change our lives, as John the Baptist has suggested. In the third place, God suggests that we pray: ‘There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it …’
As we move now from the celebration of the Word of God to our meeting with Jesus in the bread and wine of the Eucharist, let us remember the triple response to the coming of Christ which God invites. 1. Let us rejoice, 2. let us ask God for whatever we need, and 3. let us open our hearts and lives to living as both John the Baptist and Jesus the Messiah have taught us to live.