The central theme of today’s readings is the command "Rejoice!" We are to do so mainly by realizing the presence of Jesus in our midst and by receiving him into our lives through our repentance, our renewal of life and our doing of God’s will. Today is called “Gaudete” Sunday because today’s Mass begins with the opening antiphon, “Gaudete in Domino semper” (“Rejoice in the Lord always”). Today we light the rose candle of the Advent wreath, and the priest may wear rose vestments, to express our communal joy in the coming of Jesus as our Savior. We rejoice because a) we are celebrating the day of Christ’s birth, b) we recognize his daily presence in our midst, and c) we wait for his return in glory.
Homily starter anecdotes: #1: South Padre Island causeway tragedy: On September 1, 2001, a barge hit a support beam on the Queen Isabella Memorial Causeway connecting Port Isabel in far south Texas to the offshore South Padre Island. As a result, a portion of the causeway plunged into the Laguna Madre. This all happened during the very early morning hours. Before any indication of this accident was conveyed to anybody, seven or eight automobiles drove through the opening and plummeted into the water several hundred feet below. Eight people died; three survived. It took several hours before authorities on both ends of the causeway were notified and all traffic warned of the disaster and the tragedy. It was a horrible event. Even worse, business on the island suffered greatly, as this bridge was the only way for trucks, cars or vacationers to reach the island. Many were angry that plans needed to be canceled, businesses had to be shut down, and only ferries could be used to get to and depart from the island. Now if we had been heading for South Padre Island that morning, would we not have rejoiced that the warning was there and that we had been warned, not left to discover, tragically, the reason for the emptiness of the broken causeway? In today’s Gospel, John is warning a "brood of vipers" that they have to repent and renew their lives, if they are to receive the long-awaited Messiah into their midst.
Scripture lessons summarized: In today’s first reading, the prophet Zephaniah encourages Jerusalem and Israel to shout out for the joy of expecting its deliverance from the Lord. In today’s Responsorial Psalm (Is 12:6), the prophet gives the same instruction, "Shout with exultation, O city of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel." St. Paul echoes this message of joy in the second reading, a letter written from imprisonment: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again, rejoice...” In the Gospel today, John the Baptist explains the secret of Christian joy as our wholehearted commitment to God’s way by the doing of His will. John challenges people to generosity and sense of fairness so that others may have reason to rejoice. According to John, happiness comes from doing our duties faithfully, doing good for others and sharing our blessings with others in need. John’s call to repentance is a call to joy and restoration. Repentance means a change in the purpose and direction of our lives. John tells the people to act with justice, charity and honesty, letting their lives reflect their transformation. For us, that transformation occurs when Christ enters our lives, and it is to be reflected in our living in the ways John suggests.
First reading, Zephaniah 3:14-18, explained: Most Bible scholars believe that Zephaniah prophesied about 600 years before Jesus was born, while King Josiah was trying to reform Judaism. The Lord God’s message through Zephaniah’s prophecy is four parts doom and violent gloom, and one-part hope. Prophesying in the turbulent years before Judah’s conquest by Babylonia (ca 640-609 BC), Zephaniah anticipates the disaster which is soon to befall his people. But he also anticipates the goodness of God who will not abandon the people who have been called, consecrated and committed to God through the bonds of the covenant. Our reading today is taken from this hopeful finale, encouraging the people to rejoice because the Lord has withdrawn his judgments and given the victory to his people among whom we are included. Zephaniah is speaking to a people who have been burdened with war, destruction and displacement. Their lives have been assaulted and their hopes have been dashed. This is how he explains the reasons they will have for rejoicing: "The Lord has removed the judgment against you" (in other words, God has forgiven them); and "the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst" (that is to say, God is with them); "you have no further misfortune to fear" (i.e., He delivers them from evil). The prophetic message concludes by giving the assurance, “He will rejoice over you and renew you in His love" (He loves you and wants to reconcile you to Himself). The whole reading gives us the same assurance. Fears raised by wars, terrorism, and the erosion of moral values need not prevent us from trusting that God will encircle us with love and will grant us the peace we so desperately seek.
Second Reading, Philippians 4:4-17, explained: The entire letter emphasizes the relationships which the followers of Jesus are expected to develop. Paul was very fond of, and confident in, the Philippian Christians because they belonged to the first Church that Paul established on European soil, in the Roman province of Macedonia. Previously, Paul had preached the Gospel in Philippi and founded a small community of Christians there. Having been persecuted and beaten by the Pharisees, however, he had been forced to leave. Now, writing from prison (perhaps in Ephesus), awaiting trial, and with his helper Epaphroditus seriously ill, Paul can still command the Philippians to “Rejoice.” They have to ignore the petty internal rivalries of its ministering members like Evodia and Syntyche, the presence of hostile Jews as neighbors and the unwelcome presence of the Romans. Since all believe that Jesus will return very soon in glory to judge the world ("The Lord is near"), Paul feels the need to bolster their courage. He reminds the Philippians and us that the Lord Jesus is the motive and guarantor of our joy, which is to be shared with everyone in the form of kindness and serenity. He encourages the Philippians to be kind to all, to rejoice without any anxiety and to raise prayers of petition and thanksgiving to God in order to enable their hearts to be filled with the peace of God. Paul reminds us, too, that God's presence in our world not only gives us a reason to rejoice but also gives us a reason to relate kindly to those around us. Fr. Tony de Mello says in his book, Awareness, “We have everything we need here and now to be happy. The problem is that we identify our happiness with people or things we don't have and often can't have.”
Gospel exegesis: John’s central message -- repentance leading to renewal of life: John here preaches fervently, urging his listeners to make preparations for the coming of the Messiah. Even though John’s preaching is characterized by scathing criticism, his call for reform is still described by Luke as "the Good News," because the arrival of the Messiah will initiate a new reign of forgiveness, healing and salvation. The repentance which John preaches calls for a change in behavior and not just regret for the past. According to Scott Hahn “Repentance” translates a Greek word, metanoia (literally, “change of mind”). It means a radical life-change involving a two-fold “turning” - away from sin (see Ezekiel 3:19; 18:30) and toward God for His mercy and acceptance (see Sirach 17:20-21; Hosea 6:1). It requires “good fruits as evidence of our repentance” (see Luke 3:8). That’s why John tells the crowds, soldiers and tax collector, and us as well, that we must prove their Faith through works of charity, honesty and social justice. John demands that we share our goods with one another, emphasizing the principle of social justice that God will never absolve the man who is content to have too much while others have too little. John also insists that a man should not leave his job to work out his own salvation. Instead, he should do his job as it should be done. He calls people to fidelity in the very circumstances of their lives. Let the tax-collector be a good tax-collector and let the soldier be a good soldier. In other words, it is a man's duty to serve God where God has set him. “Bloom where you are planted,” St. Francis De Sales used to say. We are expected to become transformational agents where we are. And if the work environment is such that we are unable to deal honestly and fairly with other people, we should probably find a new job. No wonder John’s stirring message created a restless yearning for God in the hearts of the crowd, prompting them to ask the eager question, “What should we do?” Some of the people from every walk of life thronging to John come out of curiosity, but others, clearly motivated by religious fervor, seek John’s advice about the direction their lives should take. John has a message for each group of listeners. “John’s water-baptism was intended to produce repentance, but Jesus’ Baptism was to accomplish a purification and a refinement.” (Joseph Fitzmyer: The Gospel According to Luke). Where John advocates fairness and equity, Jesus issues a call to perfection.
Instructions to the general public: John advises people, not to be dreamers or planners only, but doers moved by sincerity and commitment. John tells the ordinary people to share what they have - their clothes and food - with those who are in need. If they are really sorry for their sins, that is, if they really want to change their lives, they will become brothers and sisters to all others, including strangers.
Instructions to the tax collectors: John preaches against greed, selfishness and the abuse of power and position. The tax collectors, to whom the Baptizer speaks here, worked for a person like Zacchaeus (Luke 19:2), a "chief" tax collector who bids for the right to collect taxes and to make his profit from what remains after he has first paid Rome’s portion. So, the Baptizer addresses mainly the employees of the chief tax collectors and urges them to be satisfied with "the amount prescribed for you" (Luke 3:13), that is, their commission.
Advice to the soldiers: There were no Roman legions stationed in Palestine at this time, and Palestinian Judeans had been exempt from service in Roman armies since the time of Julius Caesar. These soldiers, therefore, were Judean men enlisted in the service of Herod Antipas, despised because they worked for Rome's puppet king and strove to enforce the will of Rome, the occupying power, upon their fellow-Jews. The Baptizer advises them not to practice extortion or blackmail, but to be content with their pay, or rations and provisions.
Life Messages: 1) We are called to a change of life. John the Baptist, the stern and uncompromising preacher, challenges our superficial attempts at change, demanding that we take a deeper look. Obeying the commandments is a good start, but we must then examine our relationships with others. We must mend ruptures and frictions, face family responsibilities, work honestly and treat employees justly. Start where you are, John says. Our domestic and social lives must be put in order. John's voice is sober and runs counter to the intoxicating voices around us. He calls for rectitude and social consciousness. We must abandon our selfish thirst for consumption, and instead, be filled with the expectation of Jesus' coming. Hence, let us celebrate the memory of Jesus' first advent at Bethlehem, prepare for his daily advent in our lives through his presence within us and in people around us, and wait for his third advent or “second coming” (“Parousia”) at the end of the world, with joyful expectation.
2) We need to remember that we are, like John the Baptist, Christ’s precursors: Parents, teachers and public servants are also Christ’s precursors, carrying out the mission of bringing to Christ those entrusted to their care. Parents are expected to instill in their children a true Christian spirit and an appreciation for Christian values by their own lives and behavior. Teachers, too, have to play the role of John the Baptist. A Christian teacher must be always aware of being Christian in the presence of students, whatever the subject being taught, so that his or her Christian personality may leave a lasting impression on his or her students. All public servants are to remember that they are God's instruments and that they are to lead the people they serve to the feet of Jesus, so that they may know Him personally as Savior, Lord and Brother. A nurse is not to hold back compassion from those deemed “not worthy.” A teacher is to teach with enthusiasm and love. A salesperson is not to present the product as more valuable than it is, nor to overcharge people for products or services. Leaders are not to hold themselves above others. Anyone who has more of anything than he or she needs should share it.
3) We need to apply John’s message of caring and sharing: In the light of John the Baptist’s advice, we might consider what we can share with others this Christmas. John does not ask us to give everything we have but only to share -- to adopt an abandoned baby, perhaps, or to offer a meal to a hungry person, or to visit a sick neighbor, or to share in the funeral expenses of a poor neighbor, to practice active love and compassion, and to have social awareness. Further, we must do an honest job. It means that a teacher should value his students and reach out to them, doctors and nurses should treat their patients with attentiveness and understanding, attorneys should be defenders of justice for all, lawmakers should listen to the needs of their constituents, citizens should exercise their right to vote justly, workers should do a just day’s work for their pay and employers should pay fair wages without discrimination, a married man or woman should give the spouse the first place in his or her heart, an employee should entertain his customers well, working honestly for the hours they are paid, and we should help the government by paying our taxes properly.
4) What should we do in preparation for Christmas? This is the same question the Jews asked John. His answer, to them and to us, is the same: “Repent and reform your lives,” and prayerfully wait for the Messiah. Our Blessed Mother, in her many apparitions, urgently calls us to more fervent prayer. Let us remember that the Mass is the most powerful of prayers. We must be a Eucharistic people, living and experiencing the presence of Jesus in our hearts. Let us remember that conversion is through Jesus, whom we encounter in the Sacraments. Regular monthly Confession makes us strong and enables us to receive more grace in the Eucharist. Let us read the Bible and pray the Rosary daily. We might also fast once a week all year round, rather than just in Advent and Lent; after all, we sin all year round! Let us have the courage of our Christian convictions to turn off TV programs that show explicit sexual behavior, violence and the use of foul language. Let us spend some time every week in adoration of Jesus in the Blessed Sacrament. Let us forgive those who offend us and pray for them. Finally, let us share our love with others as selfless and humble service. "Do small things but with great love" (St. Teresa of Calcutta, “Mother Teresa”).