Third Sunday of Advent
It is never easy to live in an environment where one’s values and religious beliefs are not shared and supported by others. Sometimes one simply presses forward, perhaps enduring frustration, ridicule and even persecution. Sometimes people learn to compromise or at least be silent. This is a longstanding problem. It was a problem throughout the history of our spiritual ancestors, God’s chosen people, the Jews. Throughout most of their history they lived among people who did not share their beliefs and they were people who often exercised power over them. It is to just such a people that our first reading from the prophet Zephaniah is addressed. It is before the Kingdom of Judah had been conquered by the Babylonians, but was nonetheless surrounded by hostile forces. For the Jews who wished to remain faithful the challenges came not only from pagan foreigners but from their own people, often their leaders, who compromised religious fidelity in order to get along. So the prophet, in the midst of corruption and infidelity addressed those who would want to remain faithful. He offered this great prayer of hope. It noted that God was present for His faithful people, and wanted to rejoice over them and renew them in His love. The reminder of God’s presence was to encourage them in their struggles. Of course what the prophet was ultimately speaking about was the future when God’s presence would be manifest in a new and powerful way with the coming of the Messiah, a mighty savior.
The mission of John the Baptist was to likewise build up a faithful remnant among God’s people. Many people had to be returned to fidelity, and the pathway to hope for enjoying the presence of the coming Messiah was repentance the response to God’s invitation that His people would accept His gift of mercy. So powerful was John’s presence and preaching some thought he might be the Messiah. However in today’s Gospel he noted the limits of his baptism with water. He announced the coming of the mightier one, the mighty savior, who would baptize with the Holy Spirit. And as we prepare to celebrate the birth of Jesus we rejoice that the mightier one did truly come and through redemption and His Church we have experienced that new baptism with the Holy Spirit. With the presence of God, in the flesh, in Jesus Christ, came that new presence of God that would dwell in our very souls. We are called to always rejoice because we can enjoy the presence of the Messiah in our midst in this new and powerful way.
To remain joyful, to remain faithful, amidst challenges, we must keep welcoming and celebrating the presence of God, Jesus Christ alive and active through His Church. To help prepare ourselves for most joyous celebration of the birth of Jesus we are called upon to renew our awareness and appreciation of that presence of Jesus in our midst. We are also reminded that our rejoicing the presence of Jesus should rub off on other people.
I am struck with the way John the Baptist responded to those who were accepting his message of repentance. They asked him: “What should we do?” His response to each of the groups was two fold. First it was the message to change their lives. Stop doing those things that you know are wrong. It isn’t enough to feel sorry and ask forgiveness, repentance means changing your behavior. Secondly, and more specifically, the changes John specified had to do with how people treated other people: being less selfish, to be less grasping of material things especially at the expense of others. This is a great message to hear as we begin this special year of mercy. Looking at mercy in the big picture: it begins with our coming to grips with how generous God is in wanting to forgive us for our sins rather than punish us. He looks on us as a loving Father knowing we can do better. Then in gratitude we are ready to extend that mercy, first in patience and forgiveness for those who wrong us. But then it is time to look out to others in one sort of need or another and look for ways we can be more self-giving. These are captured in our traditional list of the spiritual and corporal works of mercy.
There is a special value in the various ways we are called to be more generous to those in need in preparation for Christmas. And this community is responding to them well. That is a way to bring joy or enjoyment to others. Our spirit of rejoicing that leads to sharing becomes not simply a prayer of hope but a gesture of hope. Others can experience that things can be better in their lives.
I want to suggest a particular work of mercy, although I am not sure where it fits in the list. And it would be what we might John the Baptist or Jesus might say to us if we were to ask: “What should we do?” Each of us ought to think of just one person in their sphere of relationships. That could be one’s spouse, a sibling, a co-worker or a neighbor. In many such relationships we can all think of at least one way in which fail in word, deed or attitude in regard to that person. So we might specify one specific change in the deed, the word or the attitude we will direct to that person, in order to bring them some new experience of joy, as subtle as it may be.
St. Paul beautifully exhorted the Philippians (and us as well) Rejoice in the Lord always, I shall say it again: rejoice.” And what does he say next: “Your kindness should be known to all.”