Saturday, December 12, 2015

A Reason to Rejoice - The Third Sunday of Advent

Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John answered them all saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.
—Luke 3:15-18

On this Third Sunday of Advent, the Church gives us a very particular mandate: Rejoice! And, during these pre-Christmas days, it seems that there is joy all around us. And yet, the essayist William Stringfellow makes a poignant observation that should give us pause: “For the greeting card sentiment and sermonic rhetoric, I do not think that much rejoicing happens around Christmastime, least of all about the coming of the Lord. There is, I notice, a lot of holiday frolicking, but that is not the same as rejoicing. In any case, maybe the outbursts of either frolicking and rejoicing are premature, if John the Baptist has credibility. He identifies repentance as the sentiment of Advent” (from Advent as a Penitential Season).

The themes of judgment, repentance, and salvation which emerge in this Sunday’s Gospel seem to be at odds with the spirit of Christian joy to which we are also called on this Gaudete Sunday. John the Baptist, the prophet par excellence, announces the coming of the Christ, calling his hearers to lead lives worthy of the new age of the Messiah: give up extortion and avarice and begin sharing with those who are in need. In short, manifest your interior faith through works of charity, peace, and
justice.

Saint John the Baptist
The angelic wings symbolize his role as
a prophet and divine messenger


In Abiding Word: Sunday Reflections for Year C, Sister Barbara Reid, O.P., reflects:
Beyond the baptism of repentance and its freeing joy is a further ‘baptism’ with the ‘Holy Spirit and fire’ that the Christ brings. Followers of Jesus will be empowered by the Spirit, who emboldens them for all manner of ministries. They will undergo a purification process, a winnowing away of any imperfections that impede God’s love and joy… it is a refining for all who turn to Christ, a burning away of all that keeps us from experiencing God’s delight and from knowing how to share that with others. This, then, is what distinguishes joy from optimism. A cheery outlook is not necessarily a Christian virtue. But a radical joy that accompanies a refinement by fire is one of the paradoxical hallmarks of our faith.

How can we reconcile these seemingly disparate ideas of repentance and joy? To find an answer to this question, we have to keep in mind that the One who is to come is, in the words of Thomas Merton, “more than a charming smiling infant in the straw.” In Advent we celebrating the coming and the presence of Christ in the world. This demands a certain response on our part—conversion and living lives worthy of his Kingdom—but we can also rejoice because he is present among us, even in the midst of all the problems, trials, and tragedies that seem to overwhelm our world today.

What we prepare to commemorate at Christmas has actually happened: God is in our midst. John’s clarion call for repentance is an invitation for us to acknowledge the presence of Christ among us now and to live accordingly. And so, our Advent-hope and joy are not only focused on the approach of Christmas Day. Rather, we rejoice because God has kept his promises through the ages and has given us love, mercy, and truth in Jesus: “The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals” (Zephaniah 3:17-18a).


- This reflection is adapted from a piece originally written for Aletia and posted on their website on December 12, 2015.

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