Just a Thought
Our first reading today is taken from the Book of Zephaniah. It is like a Psalm, especially when viewed in stanza. In the first verse four imperative verbs call for rejoicing: ‘Shout for joy!.. Sing joyfully!… Be glad, and exult with all your heart!’ Far from being an isolated instance in prophetic literature, this invitation is characteristic of all evocations of the Messianic age. Salvation and joy are synonymous. The Lord brings liberation to his people, freeing them from having to serve the sentence that sin had placed on them. It is the joy we await. “Do not fear,” said the angel to Mary when he came to announce to her that she would conceive and bear a son — a Saviour. (Lk 1:30) “Do not be afraid!” Says the risen Jesus to the women who came to the tomb on Easter morning (Matt 28:10) “Fear not,” announces the prophet to Zion, for “the Lord your God, is in your midst, a mighty Saviour.” These events enliven the joy and good spirits of God himself. Zion, ‘forsaken’ and ‘desolate,’ becomes again the one the Lord calls ‘my delight’ and ‘espoused.’ (Is 62:4) He goes so far as to ‘sing joyfully because of her.’ This prophecy becomes abundantly clear in the framework of the liturgy of Advent. We are truly ‘at a festival.’ — ‘People of Zion, sing and shout for joy for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.’ — ‘Rejoice in the Lord always! I say again rejoice.’ (Phil 4:4-7) Interestingly, before the Second Vatican Council, this Epistle was read each year on the Third Sunday of Advent, which was and is called ‘Gaudete Sunday.’ ‘Rejoice.’ It is common to say that one rejoices because of a person — for what he or she brings, or for what happens to him or her —or that one rejoices and shares in another’s joy. But ‘in the Lord’ is a common turn of phrase of Saint Paul and of great theological importance, it implies union with Christ, source of all that is evoked — in this instance, is joy. It means moreover, that joy cannot be held in check by anything, by any exterior tribulation. Paul writes: ‘For I am quite certain that neither death nor life, neither angels nor principalities, neither the present nor the future, nor powers, neither height nor depth nor any creature, will be able to separate us from the love of God that comes to us in Christ Jesus, Our Lord.’ (Rom 8:38-39) What a joy that is!
This joy is not demonstrated in untimely and noisy manifestations. It is rather marked with gentleness and ‘serenity’ and a certainty that God’s promises will be fulfilled. It is a joy that guards against anxiety, that formidable evil from which so many of us suffer and that for seem a feeling of being abandoned by God. Above all it is an interior peace ‘in the Lord,’ a surrendering to his providence and love, which Jesus, in his Sermon on the Mount, makes a fundamental requirement for the kingdom. (Matt 6;24-34) The placing of oneself in the hands of God does not signify resignation or fatalism, rather, the Christian confides his or her cares to God in prayer of supplication and thanksgiving. For how can anyone petition for today and tomorrow without remembering what they have received yesterday and the day before? Among all the gifts of the Kingdom, peace, ‘the peace of God’ is the supreme gift: it is ‘beyond all understanding.’ We ask for it at Holy Communion, the moment when, with the Body and Blood of Christ, we receive the pledge of eternal life. For this peace is almost equivalent to blessedness. Nothing can ruin it, neither wars, nor persecutions, nor trials. It is the last word pronounced at the moment of death: ‘Rest in peace.’ And at Christian funerals, as at the end of all liturgical celebrations, the Eucharist in particular: ‘Go in Peace.’
We now turn to today’s Gospel where John the Baptist clears the way for the ‘peace and love of God’ personified — Jesus Christ. Luke presents the ministry of the Baptist in a manner equal to that of the Fourth Gospel. Moreover, his account includes a distinct portion, that portrays the typical concerns and aspects of the day. Typical of Luke, the evangelist first sets the scene ‘among the crowds who come to be baptised by John.’ Throughout the whole Gospel ‘the crowds’ would press around Jesus, witnessing with their good will, their eagerness to listen to him, and so, they ask John: ‘What must we do?’ One could say that by instinct, ‘the crowds’ perceive that it is not enough to just listen to a teaching: it must be put into practice. The Baptist preaches conversion. Good enough, but how is it to be done? John’s response is simple. On the whole, he requires nothing extraordinary: ‘Let the man who has two tunics, give to him who has none. The man who has food should do the same.’ This sharing exemplifies ‘simple’ charity on behalf of those who lack the basic necessities of clothing and food. Jesus will make greater demands: ‘When someone takes your cloak, let him have your tunic as well.. When a man takes what is yours do not demand it back’ (Lk6: 29-30) Nonetheless, ‘Simple’ charity is truly a sure sign of conversion. The Tax Collectors are the second group to question John. They are typical examples in Luke, of those to whom Jesus was sent as a friend and a merciful Saviour. They address the Baptist respectfully — ‘Master.’ He does not tell them to abandon their profession but to: ‘Exact nothing more than your rate,’ do not use your position to enrich yourselves unjustly. Zacchaeus will go further and spontaneously, when he encounters Jesus, saying: “Look sir, I am going to give half my property to the poor, and if I have cheated anybody, I will pay him back four times the amount.”
The third group strangely enough, is composed of soldiers, undoubtedly mercenaries of Herod Antipas. They leave the ranks of ‘the crowd’ in order to pose the question: ‘What about us, what must we do?’ The response comes without hesitation: ‘No intimidation! No extortion! Be content with your pay!’ — Do not abuse your power. This kind of writing is typical of Luke’s style and thought. He often stresses the importance of action, above all, in the social realm, and, in a word, effective charity. He does not give us a set of precepts of detailed rules, but he suggests concrete principles of action that each person must employ in their particular situation. Luke’s Gospel places clear demands on those who believe in the Lord. The text here deals with the constant state of conversion that must always be present, even for those who already believe. Luke’s ability to adapt to circumstances makes his Gospel a model for all preaching and exhortation that strives to reflect the realities of life.
‘A feeling of expectancy had grown among the people, who were beginning to think that John might be the Christ.’ John the Baptist — as all four evangelist witness — clearly perceived that his mission was to prepare the way for another who was greater than he, and: ‘So John declared before them all’ that he was not the Christ and that he baptised with water: “I baptise you with water, but someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to undo the strap of his sandals; He will baptise you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” He speaks of course of Jesus the Messiah, Who is the judge at the end of time. The faith of the Church and its prayer must not neglect this aspect of his role: especially during this Holy Season of Advent. As John says: “His winnowing fan in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn.” Today — more than ever before — the imperative remains for us to live ‘baptised in the Holy Spirit.’ Luke summarises John the Baptist’s mission by saying that ‘He preached the Good News’. Moreover, the urgent calls of the precursor are nothing compared to the trials and tribulations that will precede the coming of the ‘Power’ [Christ] immediately after him. And also in Christ’s second coming at the end of time. In the manner of the ancient prophecies, he proclaims in startling words that the ‘Day of Judgement’ will be one that no-one can escape. Believers know this and never cease preparing for the day of reckoning. They follow their path of continuing conversion, and their hearts overflow with joy and gladness. Why should they fear when the Lord is in their midst? What can trouble their serenity when they have assurance that God hears their petitions and will give them his peace? During this season of Advent, which is not limited to just the four preparatory weeks before the celebration of the Lord’s nativity there is room for rejoicing and song:
‘Sound the trumpets in Zion, summon the nations; call the people together and tell them the good news: Our God and our Saviour is coming. Proclaim the good news, let it be heard; tell it to everyone, shout it aloud: Our God and our Saviour is coming.’
‘Maranatha —Come Lord Jesus.’