The teaching of John the Baptist
(Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18)
Introduction to Mass
Today is the third Sunday in Advent, traditionally known as Gaudete Sunday, which means the Sunday of Joy. The theme of the readings on Gaudete Sunday is always the sense of joy and gladness that God's people have when they contemplate God's involvement in human history or God's decisive arrival in history in the person of Jesus Christ.
To begin Mass let's acknowledge the occasions when we haven't trusted enough in God as the source of our happiness and ask him for his forgiveness.
During the centuries covered by the books of the Old Testament the Chosen People gradually formed the conviction that God would send a Messiah or a Saviour to rescue them from their various difficulties, so that hope for future salvation is a recurring theme in the Bible.
In the Season of Advent that sense of anticipation and hope is focused particularly on the coming birth of Christ, who came to be seen as the fulfilment of the promises God made to his people, especially the promise of the Messiah.
What today's readings reflect is that the activity of waiting in hope for God to act involves two aspects - a passive aspect, so to speak, and a more active one.
The second reading, from Saint Paul, contains the passive aspect. Paul talks about the peace that comes from God as a different sort of peace from anything we usually experience - it's "so much greater than we can understand", he says.
I don't think myself that St. Paul means that when we place ourselves under God's rule our lives become completely tranquil and harmonious - as though our struggles and problems just evaporate. This certainly wasnít Paulís own experience.
It's more that we find we can see our difficulties and our struggles in relation to our following of God's way. We find traces of God's activity in the experiences we have - especially the burdensome and less pleasant ones - even if we weren't totally aware of God's presence or God's influence at the time they were happening.
If closeness to God is our priority, we learn how to be detached from things, so that they don't upset us as deeply as they otherwise might, we learn patience and what we might call the art of waiting. And so even when the surface activities and events of our lives are turbulent, as they very often are, beneath the turbulence there's a peace that arises out of that attitude of patience and waiting.
It's something we should consciously ask God for: the quality of calm and interior strength, a sense of contact with him, carrying us along, especially during periods of upheaval or tribulation.
But then there's also a more active aspect of waiting in hope for God to make his presence known, and that's the aspect of actively doing something to prepare ourselves for God's arrival.
The prophets called this active preparation "repentance" and that's what both Zephaniah, in the first reading, and John the Baptist, in the gospel passage, are encouraging their listeners to do - to repent, to change their way of living, as a means of preparing themselves for the arrival of God.
Zephaniah was announcing his prophecies during a time when the country had sunk into decadence and moral decline. Zephaniah tackles the problem in two ways.
Like all the prophets he reminds the Chosen People of their responsibilities under their special Covenant with God and calls them back to a more faithful following of God. "Turn away from your sins and turn back to God" is almost a one-line summary of the preaching of all the prophets, because 'repent' means 'to turn around'.
But the other part of Zephaniah's message is to look to the future. He imagines a minority or a remnant of the Chosen People that God will rely on to create a new community. Better days and a bright future lie ahead for this remnant, Zephaniah says, and he encourages his listeners to choose now to become part of that future.
In the gospel reading John the Baptist gives a more concrete prescription of what this "repentance" entails.
John's own austere lifestyle, his fiery preaching and his use of the ritual of baptism have impressed a lot of the people he was preaching to. And now different groups of people have come back to him to ask him, "what must we do?" What does our turning back to God actually involve?
John's instructions to them aren't complicated or even, apparently, particularly onerous.
He tells the comfortable people among his listeners that they have to share these possessions and advantages that they have rather than clinging to them or accumulating even more of them. He tells the people who make their money by collecting taxes that genuine conversion involves cutting out any kind of exploitation or cheating or extortion or intimidation.
John finds that even the Roman soldiers, instruments of a colonial power occupying a foreign country, come to him for spiritual advice. He tells them to give up their habits of intimidating the native population and extorting money from them. That's how we should understand his reference to the soldiers being content with their pay: if the soldiers felt that their wages weren't high enough, John was saying, they weren't to solve the problem by seizing native citizens and telling them to empty their wallets.
John's demands don't seem very radical or dramatic but in fact the gestures John advocates only seem small. But the practices he suggests were calculated to raise the moral tone of the community as a whole, to produce a more humane and civilised way for people to relate to each other.
According to John, if the norm in some community is for people to seek their own advantage and look after their own interests, those who want to live under God's rule have to practice generosity and material sharing. If cheating and extortion are the norm, believers in God have to live by honesty and strict fairness. In a situation where physical brutality is commonplace, those who want to turn to God have to practice non-violence and respect for human dignity.
Many people know from experience that when someone puts even a small moral principle into practice that runs counter to the practices of the group or the community at large, it exposes their laziness or immorality and creates tension. So in all probability the repentance preached by John the Baptist could turn out to be quite costly after all.
So these are some of the themes in the readings for Gaudete Sunday that we can apply to our own Christian lives.
Advent is about the coming of Christ, the coming of the Messiah. But it's also just as much about our preparations for that coming - waiting, patiently, for God's Kingdom as something to be looked-forward to with joy, while at the same time making the more active and practical adjustments that are needed to comply with the justice and the holiness of that Kingdom.