Zephaniah 3: 14 – 18A; Phillippians 4: 4 – 7; Gospel Luke 3: 10 – 18
The first three sentences of the reading from the Prophet Zephaniah begin with, “Shout for joy, …..Sing joyfully, …Be glad and exult with all your heart.” These sum up the joy found in the remainder of this reading, the reading we have from Saint Paul to the Phillippians, and also of this Third Sunday of Advent. Advent was originally observed as a penitential season to prepare us for Christmas. When we cross the midway point as we do this Sunday, the message is one of joyful expectation. This Sunday is knows as Gaudete Sunday, which means Joy Sunday. The celebrant is able to wear rose colored vestments today rather than the dark purple of penance. We are called to begin to rejoice because the celebration of Christ’s birth is near.
The first two readings are both interesting when you look at the context in which they call us to rejoice. The prophet Zephaniah lived at a time when the Israelites had turned away from the Lord and to other Gods. The book of Zephaniah is only three chapters and in those chapters says much about judgment and redemption. The first Chapter is about the Day of destruction. This is a day on which God strikes back at the Israelites with great destruction and suffering. Reading this chapter you might recognize verses very similar to those that at one time were sung at funerals—the Dies Irae, or as I recall from the early vernacular Funeral Mass—“ Day of wrath and day of mourning, see foretold the prophets warning.” The second Chapter speaks of the infidelity of Israel to God and the covenant with Him. Chapter two speaks of the “judgment by God” Zephaniah calls the people to gather together before the destruction takes place, humble themselves before God, and renew their faith in God. By doing this not only will God spare them, they will be restored and become victorious. Finally, Chapter three speaks of the Restoration of Jerusalem. In three short Chapters, Zephaniah’s prophecy goes from a feeling of hopelessness and defeat, to a promise of restoration and joy.
The letter of Saint Paul to the Phillippians is often times referred to as a letter of joy. Paul tells them that in spite of the difficulties they are facing; internal problems of envy and rivalry, along with opponents who are trying to intimidate them so as to turn away from the faith, don’t give up. Paul, writing from prison and his own difficult situation, encourages them to be steadfast and to rejoice.
Each of us from time to time faces difficult situations. Whether it be a struggle with our faith, and even a slipping away from God as the Israelites in Zephaniah’s time, the struggles within our particular Christian communities, or even the people who challenge us and question our faith in ways that might intimidate us, we can become discouraged. The celebration today and the readings acknowledge these, and tell us to rejoice. Never lose sight that Immanuel—God is with us. Even in our deepest struggles Jesus is with us, and his presence should bring us inner joy.
The Gospel sums this up, and I will paraphrase what I hear John the Baptist saying, “The Messiah who we are waiting for is already with us. Open your eyes to see him, open your heart to listen to him, and allow him to enter into your lives. Rejoice! Jesus is here.” May these last weeks of Advent be a time when we are filled with the joyful expectation of receiving Christ more deeply in our lives.
Father Killian Loch, O.S.B.