Joy! Anticipation! Fire?

A Scriptural Reflection on the Readings for December 16, 2012, the Third Sunday of Advent


• Zep 3:14-18a
• Is 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
• Phil 4:4-7
• Lk 3:10-18

“Great joy,” wrote G. K. Chesterton, “has in it the sense of immortality…” Joy, like love, hope, and goodness, cannot be adequately or convincingly explained through material processes or properties. Joy is a gift pointing to a transcendent giver. And that giver is the Lord, the giver of both natural and supernatural life.

Gaudette Sunday is a day of joy and rejoicing (the Latin word for “rejoice” is gaudere), and the readings reflect this theme. The reading from the prophet Zephaniah contains an exultant call for Israel to shout and sing for joy. Why? Because the Lord had staved off judgment, rebuffed Israel’s enemies, and stood as King and Savior in the midst of the chosen people.

The responsorial Psalm, from the prophet Isaiah, echoes the same: “Cry out with joy and gladness, for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel.” And the Epistle, from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians, has a hymnic, even rhapsodic, quality: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” The reason, again, is due to the immediacy of God’s intimate, life-giving presence: “The Lord is near.”

The Gospel reading does not directly refer to joy, but instead anticipates and points, through the words of John the Baptist, toward the source of joy. The anticipation has two different but connected qualities. The first is external and focuses on the natural moral virtues; it is drawn out through the question asked by the crowds, the tax collectors, and the soldiers: “What should we do?” John’s response, in essence, is that they should act justly toward their neighbors and those in their communities.

Treating others with respect and acting with justice are, of course, moral and virtuous actions. However, they are lacking to the degree they are solely human. The need for something more is hinted at in the raised expectations of the people, who “were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.” Having recognized the need for natural goodness, they now hunger for supernatural goodness, that is, for the Christ. Having tasted the joy that comes from seeking the good for others, they wish to receive the joy that comes from the good given by God (cf. CCC 1804).

The distinction and relationship between the human and supernatural virtues is highlighted further in comparing the baptism of John the Bapist to the baptism of the Messiah. The first is an external sign, a washing of water symbolizing the need for purity and the desire for holiness. The second is an efficacious sign, a sacrament, which accomplishes what it signifies. “By the action of Christ and the power of the Holy Spirit,” explains the Catechism of the Catholic Church, the sacraments “make present efficaciously the grace that they signify” (par 1084).

What about the fire mentioned by John? While water symbolizes birth and life, “fire symbolizes the transforming energy of the Holy Spirit’s actions” (CCC, 696). Both water and fire can destroy, but both are also necessary for life. And in the case of baptism, this life is supernatural, divine, Trinitarian. In baptism, original sin is destroyed, the chasm between God and man is closed, and the soul is ignited with divine fire. Joined in the death of the Son (cf., Rom. 6), those who are baptized are transformed by the Holy Spirit into sons of God, made anew for the glory of the Father, and prepared for life in the new heavens and new earth.

Here, then, is the source and heart of our Advent joy. The season anticipates the celebration of Christ’s birth, but it also illuminates the purpose of the Incarnation: to remove judgment, to destroy sin and death, and to grant intimate, life-giving communion with God. “All seek joy,” said St. John Chrysostom, “but it is not found on earth.” It is found instead in the Son, who comes from heaven to earth—to the crowds, tax collectors, soldiers, and us. Great joy flows from immortality. Rejoice!

(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the December 13, 2009, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)

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About Carl E. Olson 1227 Articles
Carl E. Olson is editor of Catholic World Report and Ignatius Insight. He is the author of Did Jesus Really Rise from the Dead?, Will Catholics Be "Left Behind"?, co-editor/contributor to Called To Be the Children of God, co-author of The Da Vinci Hoax (Ignatius), and author of the "Catholicism" and "Priest Prophet King" Study Guides for Bishop Robert Barron/Word on Fire. His recent books on Lent and Advent—Praying the Our Father in Lent (2021) and Prepare the Way of the Lord (2021)—are published by Catholic Truth Society. He is also a contributor to "Our Sunday Visitor" newspaper, "The Catholic Answer" magazine, "The Imaginative Conservative", "The Catholic Herald", "National Catholic Register", "Chronicles", and other publications. Follow him on Twitter @carleolson.