16Dec 16 December. 3rd Sunday of Advent

1st Reading: Zephaniah 3:14-18

Salvation is near and God will protect his people

Sing aloud, O daughter Zion; shout, O Israel!
Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!
The Lord has taken away the judgments against you,
he has turned away your enemies. The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst;
you shall fear disaster no more. On that day it shall be said to Jerusalem: Do not fear,
O Zion; do not let your hands grow weak. The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
a warrior who gives victory;
he will rejoice over you with gladness,
he will renew you in his love;
he will exult over you with loud singing
as on a day of festival.

Responsorial Psalm: Isaiah 12: 2-6

R./: Cry out with joy and gladness, for in your midst is the Holy One of Israel

Truly, God is my salvation,
I trust, I shall not fear.
For the Lord is my strength, my song,
he became my saviour.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. (R./)

Give thanks to the Lord, give praise to his name!
make his mighty deeds known to the peoples!
Declare the greatness of his name. (R./)

Sing a psalm to the Lord for he has done glorious deeds,
make them known to all the earth!
People of Zion, sing and shout for joy
for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel. (R./)

2nd Reading: Philippians 4:4-7

Rejoice in the Lord, set anxiety aside and live with prayer and thanksgiving

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus.

Gospel: Luke 3:10-18

John the Baptist urges various groups of people to works of justice and charity

The crowds were asking John, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone by threats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.”

As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John , whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people.


 “What should we do?”

The question is both obvious and pertinent. In the maelstrom of life, it is good to stand back and discern what is required of me in the many contexts of life: family member, spouse, parent, disciple, leader, pastor, evangeliser and so forth. In my role, how should I be, what should I do so as also to enable others to fulfil their own callings, as family member, spouse etc. As in the teaching of John the Baptist, our responses are authentic only if they are practical, down-to-earth and real. (Kieran O’Mahony. Click here, for exegetical notes on today’s readings.)

 Awakening Conscience

The Baptist’s preaching shook the consciences of many. That prophet of the desert was saying loud and clear what they felt in their heart: it was necessary to change, to come back to God, to prepare themselves to welcome the Messiah. Some approached him with this question: What must we do?

The Baptist has very clear ideas. He doesn’t propose that they add new religious practices to their life. He doesn’t ask them to stay in the desert doing penance. He doesn’t talk to them about new rules. You need to welcome the Messiah by looking attentively to those in need. He doesn’t weave any sublime theories or get caught up in deep motivations. Speaking directly, in the purest prophetic style, he summarizes everything in one great formula: «Anyone who has two tunics must share with the one who has none, and anyone with something to eat must do the same». And we – what must we do to welcome Christ amidst this society in crisis?

Before all else, we must make a greater effort to know what’s going on: the lack of information is the first cause of our passivity. Also, we mustn’t tolerate lies or the cover-up of the truth. We need to know, in its harsh reality, the suffering that is caused by injustice in our midst. It’s not enough to be generous once in a while. We need to move toward a more sober life and «becoming poor» little by little, cutting back on our current level of well-being, in order to share with the most needy so many things we now have but don’t really need in order to live.

We need to especially notice those who have fallen into grave situations of social exclusion: the evicted, those deprived of needed sanitation, those without work or any social resources…. and instinctively go out in defense of those who are drowning in powerlessness and the lack of motivation to deal with their future. In our Christian communities we can develop different initiatives to be near to the most violent cases of social abandonment: by concrete knowledge of situations, mobilization of people so as to not leave anyone isolated; sharing of material resources, development of possible assistance.

For many these are difficult times. All of us can play our part in humanizing our reckless consumerism, becoming more aware of the suffering of victims, practicing solidarity, denouncing the lack of compassion as the crisis grows. It is a way of more fully welcoming Christ in our lives. ((J.A.Pagola))

Greatness in littleness

1. In Rome last May I discovered a beautiful place, the Palazzo Spada, near the Palazzo Farnese. It has an amazing Prospettiva called the Borromini Corridor: a line of columns leading to a distant garden with a tall statue. The guide walked down the colonnade and as she did so she grew under my eyes to gigantic size, until she stood by the statue that now scarcely reached her waist. I can’t explain the geometry that made this Alice in Wonderland effect possible. Inscribed over the colonnade is the warning: ‘The world’s grandeur is nothing but an illusion’ (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=CX_S4_c5xJ0). Similarly at the threshold of the Gospel the scrawny figure of John the Baptist, lost in a distant desert, with his scant clothing and sparse diet, magically grows to gigantic size, so that he seems uncannily great, superhuman.

His greatness is that of a voice that seems divine, the voice of all the prophets concentrated in words that fill the great spaces of the desert, and rend the hearts of all who hear. Like many great voices it owes its depth to a past that it brings alive in a new way. All four evangelists see John a re-enacting the most sublime moment in the prophets, the opening of Second Isaiah, when God speaks comfortingly to Israel as its long exile comes to an end: ‘A voice that cries in the wildernesss: Prepare the ay of the Lord. Make straight in the desert a highway for our God’ (Is 40:3; Mk 1:3; Mt 3:3; Lk 3:4; Jn 1:23). That voice drives great crowds to seek a baptism of repentance in the Jordan, as they thrill to its message: ‘The Kingdom of God is near at hand’ (Mt 3:2). Herod’s corrupt court is shaken, yet even when he is buried in a dark prison, John’s voice cannot be silenced, and even when he is murdered it still echoes powerfully in his disciples’ hearts. Surely this man can be nothing less than the long-promised Messiah?

2. Even more spectacular than John’s rise to greatness is what happens next, in another magical trick of perspective. The giant shrinks, and another obscure figure, lost in the crowds flocking for baptism, begins to grow and grow. John himself does a disappearing act, becoming only a finger pointing to one far greater than himself. ‘There comes one mightier than I after me’ (Mk 1:7)—impossible! We are overwhelmed by John’s greatness, surely no human being can exceed his gigantic stature? But he insists: ‘I am not worthy to stoop down and unloose the thong of his sandals’ (Mk 1:7; Mt 3:11; Lk 3:16; Jn 1:27). The superhuman giant becomes human in this display of humility, so striking that it is echoed in all the Gospels and long after in Paul’s preaching at Antioch in Pisidia (Acts 13:25). This other figure, Jesus of Nazareth, has as yet said nothing and done nothing, yet it is to him that John redirects the excited Messianic hopes of the crowds. There are echoes of a rivalry between those who continue to exalt John above all other human beings and those who embrace the new perspective. Jesus himself tells them: ‘I tell you, among those born of women there is no one greater than John; yet the one who is least in the kingdom of God is greater than he’ (Lk 7:28). John stands at the threshold of the Fourth Gospel: ‘He was not the Light but was sent to bear witness to the Light’ (Jn 1:8), ‘that all might believe through him’ (1:7). John refuses to have undue greatness thrust upon him (Jn 1:19-27). His greatness will lie in becoming small: ‘I am not the Messiah… He must increase, but I must decrease’ (Jn 3:28, 30).

3. Luke’s Gospel begins with the most perfect Greek sentence in the New Testament (Lk 1:1-4) and then swerves into a pastiche of the Greek Old Testament in the gorgeously woven tales of the infancy of Jesus and of John the Baptist. The Annunciation to Zechariah (Lk 1:5-25) (echoing several old testament scenes such as the annunciation to Samson’s parents in Judges 13) is paralleled by the Annunciation to Mary (Lk 1:26-38). A human web of figures formed by traditional Jewish holiness and righteousness surround the infant John and the infant Jesus, and in the Visitation the babe leaps in Elizabeth’s womb for joy, a Precursor already as a baby as in countless great paintings. Mary’s Magnificat is paralleled by Zechariah’s Benedictus at John’s birth, and here again we have a dizzying play of great and small. Mary’s ‘lowliness’ is lifted up as God does ‘great things’ for her, so that she can ‘magnify’ the Lord; and his servant Israel is lifted up as the mighty are cast down from their thrones. Baby John is ascribed a great role: ‘to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the remission of their sins’ (1:77). Luke portrays the two gigantic figures of the Precursor and the Messiah under their least gigantic guise, as infants, the tiniest of human beings. The old promises of God to Abraham and the prophets are now fulfilled, but the parents are still trembling with hope as they foretell what greatness awaits their sons, and what great blessings will come through them to God’s people.

We are dizzied by this interplay of small and great, and by the astonishing promise that the least of us is greater than John the Baptist, and that the only true greatness lies in imitation of the humility of that poor couple and their baby in Bethlehem and of mighty John who showed his greatness in humbling himself in obscure service. This is not the worldly grandeur that is nothing but an illusion, but it reveals the true dimension of things and guides us to the heart of reality. ((Joe O’Leary))

Communicating joy

In the church’s Latin days, this was called “Gaudete Sunday” and its message is comfort and joy (gaudete means rejoice.) We are urged not to worry, for the Lord is near. Holy Scripture promises the peace of God in our hearts, if we just ask for it. St Paul says, “There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer and thanksgiving”. We need not wait until after God has granted our requests before saying thanks. Even as we ask, we should already be grateful. One of the things to thank God for at the end of this year is all the good done by so many good people in our time.

Wherever there is evil, God will see that brave, resolute souls rise up to combat it. Such was the work done by St John the Baptist, as described by St Luke. People were prepared to walk all the way from Jerusalem down to near Jericho in the deep Jordan valley, on the edge of the desert — all of fifteen miles each way — in order to see John, this charismatic figure living as an ascetic in the desert around the Dead Sea. Having heard him, many stayed to be baptised by him. But they were full of the uncertainty that can surface in all of us if we take time to cast a critical eye on the kind of life we are leading.

“What must we do?” they asked him; and John spelled out his answer in no uncertain terms. While their request showed their willingness to change, it also showed that they were lacking in clear insight about what is right human behaviour. “Love and do what you will,” was to be the motto of St Augustine, meaning that if people have total inner commitment to God, then they will be incapable of doing wrong, they will know instinctively what is right from the promptings of the Spirit within them.

John the Baptist tried to change his listeners’ hearts by telling them not to be grasping, not to extort from others more than a just return for services rendered, but rather to help those in need. “If anyone has two cloaks, he must share with the man who has none.” “Give your blood,” the ancient monks in the desert used to say, “and you will possess the Spirit.” The society to which John was addressing himself — as indeed Jesus did later — was to collapse because of its lack of spiritual depth, its over concern with externals, as evidenced by the Pharisees, its pursuit of a narrow-minded nationalism, as seen in the Zealots who resorted to violence and assassination in their hatred of the Romans.

The greatest danger to peace in society is if unbridled selfishness becomes our way of life. The way preached by John the Baptist was to form a sharing, caring community. “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise.” Instead of sharing clothing or food, many see their neighbours as competitors and try to outdo them in status, lifestyle, travel, conspicuous spending and housing quality. Such self-seeking can give surface satisfaction but not deep and lasting joy. Materialism can easily make us forget our spiritual identity. St Francis of Assisi, the most joyful of saints, rightly said,  “Lord, make us channels of your peace. For it is in giving that we receive.”   Our best joy comes when we’re not thinking about ourselves at all, but trying to give a helping hand in the name of God.

Roinnt le daoine eile

An baol is mó don tsíocháin sa tsochaí ná má éiríonn an mé-féineachas neamhráite ar ár slí bheatha. An bealach a chómharlaionn Eoin Baiste is é  slí  comhroinnte lenár gcomharsanna a chruthú. “Ní mór do gach duine a bhfuil dhá chóta aige nó aice, iad a roinnt le daoine nach bhfuil aon rud acu; agus ní mór do gach duine a chuid bia a roinnt mar an gcéanna.” In ionad éadaí nó bia a roinnt, féachann go leor daoine a gcomharsanna mar iomaitheoirí agus  iarraíonn siad iad a fhágáil i stádas, stíl mhaireachtála, taistil, caiteachas feiceálach agus cáilíocht tithíochta. Is féidir sásamh uachtarach a ghabháil as fhéin-lorg den sórt sin, ach ní áthas doimhin agus buan é. Is féidir le hábharachas ár n-aitheantas spioradálta a chur as ár mheabhair. Dúirt naomh Proinnsias, idir na naoimh níos áthasaigh, go deimhin, “A Thiarna, déan sinn mar bhealaí de do shíocháin – Ór is nuair a bhímíd ag tabhairt go bhfaighidh muid.” Tagann an t-áthas is fearr nuair nach bhfuilimid ag smaoineamh faoi dúinn féin, ach ag iarraidh lámh chabhrach a thabhairt dár gcomharsanna, in ainm Dé.


2 Responses

  1. Seamus Ahearne

    God’s love letters this weekend:

    Lent and Advent can often be presented in a dour and dreary way. So there is a dollop (I almost said a smidgen) of light entertainment, thrown into the mix this weekend. The sad and dreary; the heavy and dull, is diluted by shouts of joy; dance; exultation. It is mighty fun. It isn’t all gush. But it is full of hope, life and light. If we were listening over the recent weeks, Isaiah was splashing something similar around most days. The hills and mountains of life are supposedly levelled. The valleys are filled in. The wilderness flourishes with flowers, scrubs and fruit. The obstacles and troubles of life are overwhelmed. God is with us. That extravagant, exuberant and exciting picture of life, is very attractive but many of us are not easily placated. We don’t handle the manic too readily. We can take only a smidgen of hope and light but are less easily bowled over by the extraordinary gushing- God of this message.

    I suppose the easy and very simple way to look at it, might be: Stop. Look around. Gather. Collect the memories of people who lift our hearts. Find the Advent people of today. Enjoy the characters who sum up the Readings. Appreciate the wonders of life around us. See people, things, moments, and even self, as if we had never stopped before, to look. Collect the crowd of characters in the life story. Find a new mirror, to steal a glance at the story of self. Wonder, where that person in the mirror came from; who that person met; who brought life, love and goodness to the one in the mirror. See the fun, happiness and gifts of the strange face in the mirror.

    Then shout if you must. Then sing if the words come. Then dance if you can. Then say thanks if you will. Then laugh out loud if you dare. Then see the God of life, in the story told you, by the mirror and humbly say thank you. Chew the cud of memory indeed. Celebrate the fact that God is full of fun. If there is music in our souls.

  2. Pádraig McCarthy

    The Zephaniah reading addresses “daughter Zion … daughter Jerusalem.” Then it proceeds to say, “The king of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst … The Lord, your God, is in your midst!” Lest we miss the point, the Psalm from Isaiah says, “People of Zion, sing and shout for joy, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.”

    If we address a woman, asserting that someone is in her midst, it seems to be a strong statement that she is pregnant and bringing forth. Many years ago I remember a lecturer saying that in Hebrew the words “in your midst” can carry precisely that meaning. Perhaps someone well versed in scriptural Hebrew may be able to confirm or deny this. But if we see then Mary as “daughter Jerusalem, daughter Zion,” we have here a liturgical foreshadowing of the birth of Jesus: Jesus who is the Temple of God’s presence, the Temple of which we are living stones.

    Zephaniah also says (in the translation above), “The Lord, your God, is in your midst,
    a warrior who gives victory.” The Jerusalem Bible in the Lectionary has “a victorious warrior.” The Hebrew has “iushio” – “he shall save” – the New American Bible translates it as “a mighty saviour.” The Hebrew word is from the same root as “Ieshua” – Jesus: “God (Yahweh) is salvation.” The first section of the Psalm from Isaiah has “God is my salvation … he became my saviour”, in each case from the root to save.

    So we have here the liturgical application of scripture t prepare our hearts and minds for the birth of the saving grace of God. I find that being aware of the levels of deeper associations adds a lot to how scripture gets through to me. How much of this can be shared with a particular congregation calls for the gift of sophia – wisdom.

    There may be few in the congregation who are familiar with the “winnowing” John speaks of in the Gospel reading: combine harvesters replace so many parts of the harvesting of grain. There may be some who remember the “threshing.” There are inns by the name of “Matt the Thresher” in Birdhill and Dublin; who Matt is I have no idea. Threshing in John’s time, with a flail or the hooves of beasts or a cart to separate the grain from the chaff was carried out at “threshing floors”, level rock surfaces used for the purpose. Then they had to be separated. When the breeze came up, the winnowing fork (fan) was used to scoop the mixture of grain and chaff into the air. The chaff, being lighter, blew to one side, while the grain fell back down, to be brought to the millstone.

    The fire to burn the chaff was not, of course, unquenchable. John is thinking of judgment, and perhaps of the continuous fire in Gehenna where the city’s refuse was burned.

    The Holy spirit and fire with which Jesus baptises us are a world of difference to what John was thinking. Paul to the Philippians describes it well: “the peace of God which surpasses all understanding.”

    Perhaps I may append a reflection from Thomas Merton on the birth at Bethlehem. It’s in “The Time of the End is the Time of No Room” in his “Raids on the Unspeakable.”
    Into this world, this demented inn,
    in which there is absolutely no room for him at all,
    Christ has come uninvited.
    But because he cannot be at home in it —
    because he is out of place in it, and yet must be in it —
    his place is with those others who do not belong,
    who are rejected because they are regarded as weak;
    and with those who are discredited,
    who are denied the status of persons,
    and are tortured, exterminated.
    With those for whom there is no room,
    Christ is present in this world.
    He is mysteriously present
    in those for whom there seems to be nothing
    but the world at its worst.
    For them, there is no escape even in imagination …
    It is in these that He hides himself,
    for whom there is no room.

    Fuller text at https://thevalueofsparrows.com/2012/12/31/christmas-meditation-the-time-of-no-room-by-thomas-merton/

    After all that, let us dance with Séamus.
    Let us dance with the saving God who dances with shouts of joy over us!

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