On this Third Sunday of Advent, less than two weeks before Christmas now, the message for the Church is all joy. The prophet Zephaniah announces the coming of the Messiah: “the Lord your God is in your midst a great Savior,” and in this spirit we should be “shout[ing] for joy.” As we approach the great Feast of the Nativity, we come together as the People of God, united by our common immersion in the Word of God, which paints a fitting picture for Catholics in this season.
The Church disposes us to be in a celebratory mood because “we have no further misfortune to fear.” The Savior is still with us so: “Be not discouraged.” Because the Savior is with us, God “will rejoice over you” and he will “sing over you. . .as one sings at festivals.” God will rejoice over the Church, regardless of the failings of some clergy.
In our situation, with Christ really present, we can “be confident and unafraid,” as it says in the psalm from the Prophet Isaiah. This is not because of how we feel but because of what the presence of Christ in the world through the Church means.
We do not give his presence meaning, rather we are filled with his presence and that gives our lives meaning. The need to worship God and love our neighbor has not gone away. The mission of the Church to transform each of us has not changed so that “we can draw water from the springs of salvation” in this joyous season and then “among the nations [we will] make known his deeds.”
With Isaiah, we can “sing praise to the Lord for his glorious achievement.” God is doing the great task of saving mankind and we should be overwhelmingly grateful. So Isaiah’s song is a song of thanksgiving.
It is fully appropriate, in fact it is demanded, after the prophetic pronouncements about the coming of the Messiah, a glorious time when “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the young goat; The calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them” – words from the chapter before this one that we read at Mass today.
These metaphorical signs of peace are already happening, here and there, as the Kingdom of God breaks into the world. But it will only be fully here with the Second Coming.
People in the United States are good at getting angry, but for Catholics, being angry has a different quality because “the peace of God will guard your minds and hearts.” As the baptized, we stand in the grip of holiness, which is the foundation of how to be righteously angry. This is an anger that respects persons and wishes their supreme good. This is anger, paradoxically, from love.
The spiritual power of God is present. Paul’s words apply: “The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.” (Second Reading)
People are rightly shocked at the craven moral weakness of some of our clergy, so there is definitely something to pray about. There is action to be taken. In fact, this action is part of the “glad tidings to bring to the poor.”
But historically, we have to acknowledge that the glad tidings – the moral stance of the Gospel – were already being watered down years ago, once dioceses tolerated the wishy-washy moral theology of the Sixties. The sloppiness was already being prepared for all those years ago. It gave a foundation for the neglect of spiritual leadership and Church discipline. And to speak bluntly, many of us went along with it, Now the pigeons have come home to roost.
This is where today’s Gospel comes in, forcefully: John the Baptist instructs the people in morality: firstly, “share with the person who has none.” Regardless of what else is going on, care for the poor. Then to the tax-collectors, “don’t collect more than is prescribed.” These are prescriptions in the law and they are meant to be followed, and not just by the clergy. Lastly, the soldiers are not to abuse their power– a message to all those who have power, and not just ecclesiastics.
Finally, the irresistible presence of the Lord in the world– which is the Church – shows us what real morality looks like. But his presence has another side too. It will judge us– which is one of the reasons for Christ’s Second Coming: “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.” (John the Baptist)
So, yes let’s celebrate Christmas, but let’s do so by living in such a way that shows we understand that Christmas also calls us to get ready to stand before the judgment seat.
*Image: Saint John the Baptist in the Wilderness by Caravaggio, 1604 [Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City, Missouri]