Opening reflection (taken from Magnificat magazine, www.magnificat.com): When people come to John the Baptist asking, “What should we do?” he gives them the most reasonable, common-sense reply. He says in effect, “Live reality. God is asking you to be faithful to the most ordinary circumstances of your life. He will make Himself evident there.” And with that advice, “the people were filled with expectation, asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.” All because John made them attentive to their own hearts in a way that neglected nothing of their humanity. They can exult with all their heart because now they can trust that the desires of their heart are not illusions. They have no anxiety, for the Lord is as near as the next moment and whatever it brings.
(This weekend’s Scripture readings are available in the New American Bible translation at the Vatican’s English website at http://www.vatican.va/archive/ENG0839/_INDEX.HTM.)
First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-18a (Revised Standard Version)
A reading from the book of the prophet Zephaniah.
Sing aloud, O daughter of Zion;
shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart,
O daughter of Jerusalem!
The LORD has taken away the judgments against you,
he has cast out your enemies.
The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst;
you shall fear evil no more.
On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem:
“Do not fear, O Zion; let not your hands grow weak.
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.”
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: Zephaniah receives relatively little attention among the prophets of Old Testament times. He wrote one quite short book among the group of a dozen books called the “Minor Prophets,” and his name appears in no other book. But he contributes in these verses, which appear toward the end of his book, to the portrait of the Messiah who eventually would come to save Israel and all the peoples of the world.
The writer identifies himself as a descendant of Hezekiah – likely the good King Hezekiah of Judah who led his people back to God (with Isaiah as one of his chief advisers) and whose Southern Kingdom was saved from Assyrian invasion during his reign. Zephaniah preached during the reign of Hezekiah’s great-grandson Josiah, the last strong and faithful king of David’s house before the Babylonian exile. In between, Judah and Jerusalem had once more strayed toward other gods. Zephaniah warns them that the time is short for them to repent (indeed, Josiah would be told by a prophetess that the religious reforms he pursued were good but that they would merely delay the coming exile). But Zephaniah’s vision of deliverance looks beyond the immediate Middle Eastern scene where Egypt, a declining Assyria and an ascendant Babylon were grappling for power. God would indeed come into Israel’s midst – but as a humble carpenter’s son. And when Jews and Gentiles finally recognized Him for who He is, there would be rejoicing in Jerusalem – the “New Jerusalem” of the Church, the Body of Christ. The “day of the Lord” draws ever nearer. How prepared are you to welcome Him in the manger?
Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7
A reading from the letter of St. Paul to the Philippians.
Brothers and sisters: Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let all men know your forbearance. The Lord is at hand. Have no anxiety about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which passes all understanding, will keep your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.
The word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Meditation: The Third Sunday of Advent, like the Fifth Sunday of Lent, represents a break in the penitential nature of the respective seasons. In both cases, the Church encourages us to rejoice in what God has done for us (represented in the rose-colored vestment worn by the priest on both of these weekends). Zephaniah certainly encouraged Israel to rejoice. But Paul’s words above probably are the most familiar “call to rejoice” to the followers of Jesus.
We live in difficult times. So did the early Christians; indeed, so do people of every age. They’re difficult because of the presence of sin in our world. That’s why Paul encourages us all the more to rejoice! Let people see how we live with the failings of our brothers and sisters and love them despite them all. Let us never hesitate to talk to God in prayer, in church or out, out loud or in our minds. The more we follow our Lord and cling to Him, we have the promise of the last sentence of our reading, a verse often quoted (with only slight alterations from this text) at the end of Lutheran sermons. This Advent and always, “May the peace of God, which passes all human understanding, keep our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus unto life everlasting. Amen.”
Gospel: Luke 3:10-18
A reading from the holy Gospel according to Luke. Glory to You, O Lord.
The multitudes asked John the Baptist, “What then shall we do?” And he answered them, “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise.” Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, “Teacher, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Collect no more than is appointed you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what shall we do?” And he said to them, “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages.”
As the people were in expectation, and all men questioned in their hearts concerning John, whether perhaps he were the Christ, John answered them all, “I baptize you with water; but he who is mightier than I is coming, the thong of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor, and to gather the wheat into his granary, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he preached good news to the people.
The Gospel of the Lord. Praise to You, Lord Jesus Christ.
Meditation: We remain this weekend on the banks of the Jordan with John the Baptist. We have another month until we recall how Jesus came to His cousin and forerunner, asking for baptism. But John’s preaching was more detailed than a simple “Prepare the way of the Lord!” We read here how much influence and respect he had among his fellow Jews – even if it might have been because John openly disowned being the Messiah himself.
Did John’s teachings differ from those that Jesus soon would begin to proclaim? Not at all. In his answers to the “What shall we do?” questions of various groups, we read that he, too, was preaching the Gospel, the “good news.” One might marvel – until one remembers humanity’s short memory and predilection to sin – that these teachings still needed to be proclaimed to Israel after so many centuries. But 1,200 or more years after Moses, a thousand years after David and five centuries after the return from exile, the Jewish nation was once more being reminded to repent and live as God had instructed them to live. This time, they were hearing from the last and greatest of the prophets. The next time they heard words such as these, they would come from their true Author, the Word made flesh.
Did John’s words about fire and the burning of weeds and such indicate that He was announcing a vengeful conqueror? Think instead of these aspects of the years to come: the tongues of fire that appeared atop the apostles’ heads after Pentecost; Jesus’ wish that the fire He had come to kindle already was burning; the crowds in Jerusalem being “cut to the heart” upon hearing Peter’s Pentecost sermon. Jesus would set the world on fire with His Holy Spirit; He would harvest the wheat and separate the chaff with His Word, sharper than any two-edged sword.
These were the fulfillment of the prophecy of John the Baptist, miraculously conceived by Zechariah and Elizabeth, who would begin fulfilling his mission to proclaim our Savior from inside his mother’s womb when a Virgin from Nazareth knocked at the door. We will hear that story next weekend. May your Advent preparations be fruitful until then!
Close with individual prayer, followed by Our Father, Hail Mary and Glory Be