1st Reading – Zephaniah 3:14-18a
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!
Sing joyfully, O Israel!
Be glad and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!
The LORD has removed the judgment against you
he has turned away your enemies;
the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst,
you have no further misfortune to fear.
On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!
The LORD, your God, is in your midst,
a mighty savior;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
and renew you in his love,
he will sing joyfully because of you,
as one sings at festivals.
Today’s first reading is an oracle of salvation from the prophet Zephaniah, a hymn of joy sung by the remnant of Israel that will be restored to Zion.
Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
Zephaniah instructs the people to cast aside all reserve and rejoice wholeheartedly: Shout! Sing! Be glad and exult!
Though Zion and Jerusalem are usually associated with the monarchy, there is no royal reference here. The nation as a whole is being addressed, identified as a cherished daughter.
The LORD has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; The King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.
The reason for their rejoicing is twofold: 1) deliverance from their enemies, accomplished by God, and 2) the abiding presence of God in their midst.
Note the reference to God as the King of Israel. This is a reference to the early period of Israel’s history, when God was the only king they knew. (They insulted God’s kingship and asked for a king to govern them “like all the nations” in 1 Samuel 8.)
On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!
“On that day” is a common prophetic allusion to the “day of the Lord,” a future time when the justice of God will be executed throughout the world.
This expression “fear not” usually accompanies assurance of Yahweh’s saving presence in an oracle (e.g., 2 Kings 6:16; 1 Chronicles 22:13).
The literal translation of “be not discouraged” is “let not your hands be slack,” like one paralyzed in fear (see Isaiah 13:7).
The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior;
Referring to God as their king and savior, the prophet is reminding them that salvation and deliverance comes not from a human king, but from God alone.
He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, He will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.
The reading closes with a tender expression of God’s love.
The verb for rejoice is śimhî, the same word traditionally used for a bridegroom rejoicing over his bride. The verb translated as “renew” is hāraš, which literally means “to be quiet,” indicating that this love is too deep to be expressed in words. An intimate relationship is clearly intended.
2nd Reading – Philippians 4:4-7
Brothers and sisters:
Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Last week’s reading from Philippians was from the beginning of that letter; today we hear from its end, where Saint Paul concludes his message to the community with instructions for living in expectation of Christ’s coming.
Brothers and sisters: Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!
The reading begins with a double exhortation to rejoice. The joy that he advocates is not simply happiness from the enjoyment of life. It is a special kind of joy — joy “in the Lord,” grounded in Jesus Christ.
“This rejoicing is not separable from grief, for indeed it is rather deeply connected with grief. The one who grieves for his own wrongdoing and confesses it is joyful. Alternatively it is possible to grieve for one’s own sins but rejoice in Christ. … On this account he says Rejoice in the Lord. For this is nothing if you have received a life worthy of rejoicing. … He is right to repeat himself. For since the events are naturally grievous, it is through the repetition that he shows that in all cases one should rejoice.” [Saint John Chrysostom (A.D. 398-404), Homilies on the Epistle to the Philippians, 15,4,4-7]
Your kindness should be known to all.
A call to lead lives of kindness, willing to forgo any form of retaliation, selfless in spite of the faults of others. In other words, lives lived like Christ.
Further, Paul calls for this kindness to be known to all, not just those within their community or those that are like them. Christ’s love is available to everyone.
The Lord is near.
A watchword about the future coming of Christ, who will set all things right. If they have lived righteously, he will come as their savior, not as their judge.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.
A second admonition to live without anxiety, indicating that the community is living in fear and dread of something or someone. He directs them to make their requests known, indicating that they are in need. This group of believers is clearly experiencing some sort of adversity.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
Abiding in the saving grace of God will eliminate their anxiety; they will be rewarded with peace.
Note that this peace is “of God”; it transcends human comprehension. This peace acts as a sentinel, keeping watch over them and withstanding any form of anxiety in their hearts and minds. This is certainly reason to rejoice!
“When the peace of God has come upon us we shall understand God. There will be no discord, no disagreement, no quarrelsome arguments, nothing subject to question. This is hardly the case in worldly life. But it shall be so when we have the peace of God, wherein all understanding shall be ours. For peace is the state of being already at rest, already secure.” [Marius Victorinus (ca. A.D. 355), Epistle to the Philippians, 4,7]
Gospel – Luke 3:10-18
The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
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.”
Exhorting them in many other ways,
he preached good news to the people.
Today’s gospel reading continues the story of John the Baptist, who teaches the people how to live righteously and acknowledges the superiority of the coming Christ.
The crowds asked John the Baptist, “What then should we do?”
John will be asked this question three times in this reading. Although he himself lived an austere life, removed from the general community, he does not prescribe the same for the crowds.
He said to them in reply, “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.”
John challenges the people to continue their normal lives, but with honesty, integrity, and concern for others.
He preaches what Jesus will also preach: that they are to share their surplus with those who lack the necessities of life.
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, “Teacher, what should we do?”
The Jewish people were taxed into poverty by their Roman oppressors, who lived opulently. The tax collectors were fellow Jews who were employed by Rome and were seen as traitors by their countrymen. They were often petty tyrants and renegades who took advantage of the vague and indefinite tax rates to collect more than what was owed, which they kept as profit.
To be plundered by Gentile overlords was bad enough, but to experience this abuse at the hands of their fellow Jews was far worse. Tax collectors were therefore considered among the worst of sinners, alongside prostitutes.
In that light, it is surprising to see these unethical outcasts coming to John for baptism.
He answered them, “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
John instructs them not to resign, but to desist from their exploitative practices.
Soldiers also asked him, “And what is it that we should do?”
These particular soldiers were probably not members of the Roman garrisons, but Jewish men that comprised a form of police to protect the tax collectors. Since they helped to enforce Rome’s will in a subject country, they too were despised.
St. Bede the Venerable observed, “What great virtue there was in the discourse of the Baptist is manifested by this, that the tax collectors, nay even the soldiers, he compelled to seek counsel of him concerning their salvation.” In other words, the message in John’s preaching was so compelling, struck such a deep chord with them, that the most unlikely of hearers sought his moral direction.
Note that it isn’t the religious leaders who are willing to repent, but the ordinary Jewish people (“the crowds”) and those on the fringes of Jewish society.
He told them, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”
Like the tax collectors, the soldiers are admonished not to extort and to fulfill their duties ethically. He also instructs them to be content with their (often minimal) wages.
John is not asking them to do momentous things. Holiness begins by doing small, virtuous things diligently, and with a reverent attitude. Repeated, minor good deeds pave the way for big, heroic ones.
Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.
Recall from last week’s reading that John’s words and actions recalled the Exodus. That, combined with his preaching, has stirred the people’s hopes for the coming messiah that had been foretold by the prophets.
Even though the crowds sought him out, John did not seek public adulation. He knew his role (i.e., Christ’s predecessor and beacon, not Christ himself) and did not step beyond its confines.
As we have seen, John not only accepted his role and lived it, he counseled others to do the same. He advised those who came to him to know who they were, recognize their limits, and live righteously within them. Collect just taxes but no more. Do not oppress those over whom you have authority. Share your excess.
If our identity is rooted in being a child of God, we have no need to deny that there are others before us, beyond us, or greater than we are. By the grace of God, we are who we are.
John answered them all, saying, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming.
Lest the people mistake him for the messiah, John contrasts himself with the one who is to come, who is superior.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
John insists that he is not worthy to undo the sandals of the long-awaited messiah, a menial task even below the dignity of a Hebrew slave.
Saint Gregory the Great wrote, “If John had not been a valley in his own eyes, he would not have been full of the grace of the Spirit.”
He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire.
John’s baptism with water was ritual of repentance and cleansing. Jesus will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire, which not only cleanse, but will purge and transform.
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.”
Grain was separated from chaff by winnowing, a process where the mixture of wheat and chaff (grain hulls) was thrown into the air with a winnowing fan. The chaff would blow away, leaving the grain to fall to the floor and be swept into the kitchen or barn.
The image being created by John, the fiery, compromising reformer, is clear: The messiah’s coming will be a time of judgment.
The usual way of interpreting this judgment scene is that the fruitful will be separated from the unfruitful, the saved from the lost. However, others see the fire not as the fate of the lost, but the refining of the blessed. We all have our chaff of ego and sin, we all have our winnowing — and the fire of Christ will burn it away.
The only exit from Dante’s Purgatorio was a wall of fire. Once the pain was burned away by love, the other side was Paradise, sheer joy.
Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.
Jesus’ way of bringing people to God was different than John’s. Jesus identified himself as the Son of Man who has come “to seek and to save the lost”; he eats with sinners and tells parables of a God who searches for them when they are lost (Luke 15).
John urges acts of conversion and repentance as a condition for communion with God; Jesus, in contrast, practices communion as a prelude to a deep experience of God’s love.
Connections and Themes
- The principal theme of the readings for the third Sunday of Advent is joy — the joyful anticipation of the Lord’s coming. Accordingly, this Sunday has come to be known as Gaudete Sunday, which takes its name from the Latin word for “rejoice.”
- First Reading: Zephaniah’s words spill over with expectant joy as he informs us that God is in our midst and has saved us from our enemies.
- Second Reading: Paul exhorts us to rejoice, reminding us that the Lord is near and that there is no place for anxiety in the heart of a believer.
- Gospel: No one will be left out of this renewal. The Church, like Jesus, is called to commune with, and accept, those whom our society would reject.
- Joy is the deep inner experience of satisfaction and exhilaration. According to Saint Paul (Galatians 5:22), it is one of the fruits of the Spirit. This is not emotional happiness, but rather a religious sentiment. Along with gratitude, it is the heart’s response to God’s goodness.
- The good news of the gospel is true whether we are prosperous or needy, healthy or ill, enjoying life or struggling with death. While we may not always be emotionally happy, our circumstances do not determine our joy. The saving acts of God give us confidence in his care and make us unafraid of whatever may cross our paths.
- Advent joy springs from the realization that the presence of God in our lives can transform us in such a way that his promises of peace and security will be fulfilled.
- It is interesting to contrast the Messiah John expected with Jesus himself. Christ did not burst onto the scene with judgment, as John seemed to think he would. (Immediately before this reading in Luke, John lashes out at those who come to be baptized: Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? (Luke 3:7)) Instead of threatening judgment, Jesus preached good news to the poor, liberty to captives, sight for the blind, and freedom for the oppressed. His first contact with tax collectors was not to exhort them to honesty, but to call them to be disciples and share meals with them — to the point that we was called “a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners” in Luke 7:34. It is easy to imagine that John was disappointed. Are we disappointed in Christ, or do we fully accept the gospel message? Are content with God’s ways, or do we insist upon our own?