BY FATHER DONALD DILGER
Sunday of Advent, Year C
First Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Response: Psalm (Isaiah 12:2-3, 4, 5-6); Second Reading: Philippians 4:4-7: Gospel: Luke 3:10-18
The prophet Zephaniah was active in the early years of King Josiah, who reigned in Jerusalem from 640-609 B.C. Josiah was arguably the best of the kings descended from King David — demonstrating that even inherited royalty can occasionally hit the mark. Zephaniah himself was of royal ancestry — great grandson of King Hezekiah, 715-686 B.C. — Therefore, a cousin of King Josiah. Since the fall of the northern kingdom of Israel to the Assyrian superpower of the day, the Kingdom of Judah had become a satellite kingdom of Assyria. Assyrian overlordship brought with it Assyrian culture including Assyrian religion. By late 7th century B.C. Assyrian power was in decline. It was time to rid worship of the Lord in the Kingdom of Juda from the idolatrous influence of Assyria. King Josiah began this needed reform. Zephaniah’s mission supported the reform.
Zephaniah begins his oracles as a prophet of doom. The fate of all nations is in the Lord’s hands. The theme is “the Day of the Lord,” a day when God would decisively intervene to punish the worship of foreign gods in Jerusalem. There would be cleansing of political leaders who dress like foreigners and practice violence and deceit. Cheating merchants and unbelievers will be eliminated. The prophet must have had a very bad day. The vocabulary of his first message: “wrath, distress, agony, devastation, darkness, gloom, cloud, trumpet blast, battle cry, blood, corpses, dung, destruction.” All this horror is followed by denunciation of nations and tribes surrounding the Kingdom of Judah. All this would be enough to send readers into depression, but fortunately the tone and the tune change into an oracle of joy. From this oracle of joy comes our first reading of this day — Gaudete (Rejoice) Sunday. The punishment the Lord threatened against Jerusalem has been repealed. In fact, the Lord himself will dance with shouts of joy for them as on a festival day. Thus, the first reading sets the theme of joy for the Responsorial Psalm and the second reading.
It will come as a surprise to some that the Responsorial Psalm is not taken from our Book of Psalms, but from an oracle of Isaiah. A Psalm is simply a song, and there are many such songs in both Old and New Testaments. Joy pervades this song or psalm from Isaiah 12. The People’s Response shouted four times expresses it best, “Cry out with joy and gladness, for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel!” From the words of this song of joy, Pope Pius XII, on May 15, 1956, opened his encyclical on devotion to the Sacred Heart of Jesus, “With joy you will draw water from the fountains of the Savior,” Isaiah 12:3.
The second reading is part of St. Paul’s Letter to the Philippians. If Paul had a favorite Christian community, the Christian Church of Philippi in Greece was surely the one. They sent him support, (care packages or maybe even a slave or servant), while he was imprisoned on the other side of the sea in Ephesus (southwest Turkey today). Prisons were places of gloom, darkness and chains, though some permitted help to a prisoner from the outside — food or an assistant. The fact that Paul was in prison makes it all the more remarkable that, as our second reading opens, he writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always! Again I say, Rejoice!” He gives two reasons for joy. First is the love the Christians of Philippi displayed by the support they sent to him in prison. Secondly, “The Lord is near!”
For Paul that meant that the end was at hand and the Lord Jesus would soon return, the so-called “Second Coming.” For us in the experience of this Advent Liturgy, we are reminded of not only the final appearance of Jesus at the end of time, but also that our celebration and commemoration of his first visit to earth is imminent.
Last Sunday’s gospel reading introduced us to the mission of John the Baptizer — “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” The Greek word our gospels use for “repentance” is metanoia, meaning “a change of mind.” The change of mind was outwardly expressed by submitting to a baptism of water by John and his disciples. A change of mind involves a change in actions, a change in way of life. In other words, as the gospel notes, “What should we do?” This Sunday’s gospel reading, therefore, gives us some examples. John’s advice: “If you have two cloaks, share with someone who has none.” In Luke’s Sermon on the Plain, 6:29, Jesus radicalizes the Baptizer’s advice, “From him who takes away your coat, give him also your shirt.”
John adds the same advice about food, “Whoever has food, do likewise.” Next on stage are the hated tax collectors. They too wanted to change their way of life, as they say to John, “Teacher, what should we do?” Tax collectors were fellow Jews who purchased a franchise to collect taxes due to the government of the Roman occupying power. They were empowered not only to collect due taxes but also to collect fees from tax payers for doing so. These fees could be exorbitant. Therefore, John responds, “Stop collecting more than what the law allows.”
Soldiers, who served as bodyguards to the tax collectors, are next. “And what is it that we should do?” Seems the soldiers ran a kind of protection racket, victimizing the taxpayers. Pay us protection money or we will accuse you of not paying taxes. John’s advice: “Do not practice extortion or falsely accuse anyone.” Luke notes the enthusiasm of the crowds who came to John. They thought John might even be their awaited deliverer from Roman occupation, their Messiah. This gives Luke opportunity for what we call apologetics. In this case, a defense of a Christian practice. Sources tell us that there were conflicts between disciples of the Baptizer and disciples of Jesus (later called Christians). Luke clarifies. John’s baptism is inferior to Christian baptism. In words he attributes to John, the Baptizer himself admits that his baptism is only with water. The One for whom he is preparing, “one mightier than I, whose sandal strings I am unworthy to untie,” that One will baptize “with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” (Think Luke’s Pentecost in Acts of Apostles 2:1-4.)