This is the 3rd Sunday of Advent. We feel expectancy rising, a sense of joyful anticipation. This Sunday is called ‘Gaudete’ – the Latin for ‘Rejoice’. It’s the first word of the Entrance Antiphon: ‘Rejoice in the Lord always: again, I say rejoice.’ And that is drawn from the opening words of today’s second reading.
Why rejoice? Because the Lord is near. It could not be clearer.
In the 1st reading the prophet Zephaniah tells a battered Jerusalem six centuries before Christ: ‘the Lord is in your midst’. He’s present as a defender, present as a bridegroom.
The Response to the Psalm is: ‘Great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.’
In the 2nd reading, St Paul tells the fragile little community of Christians in 1st c. Philippi, ‘the Lord is very close’.
In the Gospel, set fifty years earlier, John the Baptizer tells his Jewish compatriots by the River Jordan, ‘Someone is coming, Someone more powerful than I am’ – coming to gather the good grain.
The Lord is present, is close, is coming. What does this bring to our minds? Many things surely. The coming feast of Christmas, when Christ is, as it were, born again for us. The Eucharist when the bread becomes his Body, his whole Self. Grace in our own lives: Christ beside me, Christ before me. Answers to our needs and prayers. Perhaps unexpected events, setbacks, difficulties; he comes to winnow and purify but always in view of salvation. Nor should we forget his final Coming. But, in the end, the Coming is only one.
In Advent, we’re given two signs of it. Two people, a man and a woman: John the Baptist and Mary – a prophet in the wilderness and a virgin in a village. Mary will be the living instrument by whom God will come in our flesh, one of us, God and man. John would be the sponsor, the godfather as it were, of the God-man’s public life and ministry which began when he was baptized by John in the River Jordan.
Today’s Gospel offers us John. The down-to-earth question of the people is meant to be ours. It comes three times: ‘what must we do?’ If the Lord is coming, what housework do we have to do? It’s ordinary people who ask it, some actually despised people: the tax-collectors and those doing military service – not Roman soldiers, but Jews in the employ of the puppet-rulers, the Herods, through whom Rome governed. What must we do? John’s answer is surprising. It isn’t: leave your job, come and live in the wilderness and live on locusts or wild honey, or go to Jerusalem and offer sheep and goats in the Temple, or fast three days a week, or say some special prayers. No. It’s: share your clothes and your food, avoid the occupational hazards and besetting sins of your workplace, don’t abuse your power or status, don’t think that because you wear a uniform, it’s a licence to bully. ‘Be content with your wages’. Get your ordinary daily life and work into decent moral shape. In the 2nd reading, St Paul says the same really: stop worrying, pray, keep yourself in peace. It’s like Padre Pio: ‘pray, hope and don’t worry’. The present we can bring to Christ at Christmas is just ourselves, our daily life put right with his help. God is that close. It’s so simple. No acrobatics, no Pilates, no marathons. No great gestures, no special clothes. Just turning to Him. ‘Great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel’. Still yourself and feel Him.
‘Someone is coming, someone who is more powerful than I am’: John the Baptist was great at one-liners. And this is one of them. Someone is coming, someone is close, someone is already here. And this Someone is ‘more powerful’ than me. He’s on my side, cares for me better than I can, loves me more than I do. He’s the free download of Christmas, given us by the Father, given us by Mary. All we have to do is clear the nonsense in our lives and click the ‘Yes’ of faith.
Come, Lord Jesus!
St Joseph’s, Woodside