If you wish to read the texts click on the texts: Zeph 3:14-18; Phil 4:4-7; Lk 3:10-18
The Third Sunday of Advent is called “Gaudete Sunday.” Gaudete is Latin for “rejoice.” Rejoice is the first word of the Entrance Antiphon of today’s liturgy. It is also a call found in the first and second readings of today. In the first reading, the whole of Jerusalem is invited to rejoice because the Lord has taken away all judgements and turned away all enemies. In the second reading, Paul invites the community, at Philippi, to rejoice in the Lord because he is near. It is a positive command and one that Paul repeats so as to make the call to rejoice emphatic.
We realize that the Lord is near and that we must, indeed, rejoice because this is true. We also realize that, in order that this rejoicing is genuine and authentic, we must ask, like the groups in the Gospel text of today asked: “What should we do?”
This is the question that is asked of John the Baptist three times in the Gospel text of today by three different groups of people. It is significant that the question is not “How should we pray?” or “How often must we fast?” but “What should we do?” It is an action oriented question that has to do, not with inward looking repentance but, with outward looking acts of justice and mercy. It has to do, not with a withdrawal into the desert but, with an immersion into the market place which is where true repentance is done.
Though the content of John’s response to each group is different, because it is specific to that group, the core is the same. Thus, repentance for the crowds means not to put on sackcloth and ashes or even to offer sacrifices of burnt offerings. Repentance means outward action. It is a willingness to share with the less fortunate what one has. It is to realise that one has no right to hoard and keep for oneself any extra and this is especially so when there are so many who do not have even the bare minimum. The tax collectors and soldiers are challenged to refrain from exploiting their positions for personal gain at the expense of others. They were not to extort, but to be content with their due. All of John’s responses call for an end to a self centred and selfish life, a life based on greed, self satisfaction, and accumulation of material possessions. John’s responses call for the beginning of a life that will show actions of concern for one’s neighbour.
This change of heart and mind, as Zephaniah points out, is not the condition but the consequence of the Lord’s coming in the midst of his people. In the ninth and concluding oracle of the book, the people of Israel are called to witness the presence of the Lord. This presence is one of unconditional and eternal love. It is a presence in which, not only will the people rejoice over God but, God will also rejoice over his people. The strife is ended, the discord is no more, and the conflicts and disagreements are a thing of the past. Now, what matters is that the judgement has been taken away and the reproach has been removed.
The consequence of the Lord’s coming is, according to Paul, the gift of peace which does not mean merely the absence of strife or conflict but the total well-being of the person. It touches every aspect of a person’s life. It is a peace which means both wholeness and oneness. It is not given to the individual alone but also to all members of the community as a community.
In order to receive this peace, it is necessary to rid our hearts and minds of anything that might prevent it from entering our hearts and our world. As long as we continue to be self centred and focussed only on how much we can accumulate for ourselves, this peace cannot be known. As long as we continue to do injustice and not give others their just due, this peace cannot be known. As long as we close our hearts and minds and ears to the cries of the millions of our brothers and sisters who have never known or experienced love, this peace cannot be known.
The message of John the Baptist to the groups he addressed 2000 years ago still finds an echo, even today. It is a message which asks us to eliminate greed and voracity from our hearts because our greed deprives others of what they must have. It is a message that challenges us never to be unjust and unfair to others and give up the attitude of selfishness that turns us inward to dwell on our concerns alone. John invites us to this other way of living which is a far better way than the one we have been used to till now. We have not experienced it because we have been too afraid to try it. The challenge, then, is not to ask “What should we do?” The challenge is to do it.