• Zeph 3:14-18a
• Isa 12:2-3, 4, 5-6
• Phil 4:4-7
• Lk 3:10-18
The day after Thanksgiving, I was in the car with my daughter. She began searching the radio, and what did we soon hear? Christmas music! She wrinkled her nose and said, “Dad, why does this station start playing Christmas music the day after Thanksgiving, and then stop the day after Christmas begins? It makes no sense!” She’s right, of course. It doesn’t make sense that the song, “The Twelve Days of Christmas”, is played every day for thirty days—until Christmastide begins. No, it doesn’t make liturgical sense, but it does make dollars and cents, as demonstrated by the abundance of sales and savings leading up to Christmas.
Scott Hahn, in Signs of Life (Doubleday, 2009), writes that while he doesn’t begrudge retailers their push to sell Christmas gifts, he does “grieve for the eclipse of Advent; for the Church’s season of spiritual preparation for Christmas has certainly been overwhelmed by the ever-expanding ‘Christmas shopping season.’ Advent is a season we must recover, even if it takes heroic effort.”
He later makes this fundamental point, worth pondering with today’s readings: “With the birth of Jesus comes the fulfillment of all the holy desires of all those many centuries. That is the joy we mark in Christmas, but it’s difficult for us to experience the joy unless we first undergo the longing.”
Advent is a season of longing, anticipation, expectancy. We mark Gaudete Sunday midway between the beginning of Advent and the Solemnity of the Nativity of the Lord. Its name comes from the Latin for rejoice, the first word of the opening antiphon of the Mass: “Rejoice in the Lord always.” Today’s readings reflect the growing sense of mingled expectation and exultation. The reality of divine joy is palpable, gathering and waiting like the morning sun hidden behind distant hills.
Waiting, we can take up the question put by the people to John the Baptist, “What should we do?” That question was not in response to a polite suggestion or a series of polling questions, but to John’s strong, even harsh, exhortation. “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance… “ (see Lk 3:7-9). The crowds that came out to John wanted a new life and were willing to accept the Baptist’s bracing challenge. And his challenge was very much in keeping with the other Old Testament prophets: share with those in need, be just in collecting taxes, cease extortion and false accusations.
The prophet Zephaniah, writing during the reign of King Josiah (640-609 B.C.), had issued a similar, urgent call for reform and spiritual renewal, setting the stage for the lengthy mission of yet another prophet, Jeremiah. After warning of judgment and the impending Day of the Lord (chapter 1-2), Zephaniah concluded with a hymn of joy to be sung by the faithful remnant when restored to Zion. Who is the faithful remnant? They are the people of the New Covenant, the Church, as well as the Mother of the Church, Mary, the faithful Daughter of Zion (cf. CCC 2676, 722). “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst,” proclaimed Zephaniah. The King and Lord was also with and within Mary in a unique and transforming way: “The Lord is with Thee, blessed art thou among women and blessed is the fruit of thy womb, Jesus.”
True, lasting joy flows from God. “All seek joy,” wrote St. John Chrysostom, “but it is not found on earth.” That is, it does not come from below, from from above; it is a gift of God. In the words of St. Paul, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!” The reason for this is simple and astounding: “The Lord is near.”
Such was John’s message: the Lord is near. Be prepared. Long for his coming. And know the Lord baptizes with the Holy Spirit and fire, filling us with divine life. That is music to the ears, forever.
(This “Opening the Word” column originally appeared in the December 16, 2012, edition of Our Sunday Visitor newspaper.)