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Looking Ahead to the 3rd Week of Advent
In a Religion rich with symbolism, the 3rd week of Advent is most conspicuous to many Christians by the lighting of the lone rose-colored Candle of the Advent Wreath. With the 2 prior violet candles having represented Hope and Preparation respectively, the message this week shifts to one of Joy nestled within the back-drop of a very simple yet powerful and prevailing message that the Lord is near, as referenced in this week's Second Reading (Philippians 4:4-7) and underscored by the prophet Jeremiah, Baruch and of course John the Baptist in prior Advent Readings. More on John shortly.
Even the prophet Zephaniah took a break from his typical warnings of doom and gloom for those who fail to repent by delivering a far more uplifting message. Among other things, he proclaims to his fellow Jerusalemites that "the Lord has removed the judgement 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". He goes on to say "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". This from a prophet who oftentimes warned of God's asperity, with such dire portents as “I will sweep away everything from the face of the earth says the Lord. I will sweep away humans and animals; I will sweep away the birds of the air and the fish of the sea.”
Why the dramatic shift in message and tone? One can only speculate, as the Book of Zephaniah is a relatively short one, but if we were to surmise that Zephaniah was of the same time and lineage as the Prophet Jeremiah (and there is fairly strong evidence to believe that he was) we could perhaps ascertain that his message ran parallel to that of Jeremiah's, and that the coming of Jesus compelled Zephaniah to believe that there were far better days ahead, days filled with redemption and much joy.
The Gospel then takes us to John the Baptist in one of his true signature moments. We find John among a rudderless and rather confused crowd, certainly understandable of course given the gravity of his radical and unprecedented message. As is always the case with large groups, a blunt, no-nonsense, cliff note aficionado emerges and simply blurts out "So....what should we do?".
John doesn't miss a beat.
"Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise." Even tax collectors and soldiers (who apparently served as both militia and the police during the time as one could assert based upon John's response) came to be baptized and receive enlightenment. John's advice to them was to "stop collecting more than what is prescribed. Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone and be satisfied with your wages" respectively. Given John's wisdom and well-crafted responses, the crowd began to believe that this man was in actuality Christ Himself. But John quickly corrected them all by explaining "I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the straps 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."
I am not worthy to loosen the straps of his sandals....such great visual imagery, and it's surprising that this seminal quote has never made it into our common, every day vernacular, especially in light of the others we so speedily settle for. Whenever the cringe-worthy reference to someone having "drank the Kool-Aid" is so casually spoken, I'm left to wonder if the individual who flippantly uttered this exhausted cliche even knows of the ghastly events that took place in Jonestown on that sorrowful day in November of 1978. But again, here we have John readying his disciples for the Savior of the World, He who will die for the sins of man, and he has already begun to cobble together the road map in order to "separate the wheat from the chaff", as David Crosby once said in his hippie anthem "Almost Cut My Hair".
Yes we are approaching the 3rd Sunday in Advent, known as "Gaudete (be joyful) Sunday" by a handful of old-school Christians. Take John the Baptist's words to heart this Christmas. Participate in a Holiday Coat Drive, so that you who "has two cloaks should share with the person who has none". If you have a gift for all things culinary, cook up your best Christmas Dish and deliver it to a Soup Kitchen as a thank you to God for being among those "who have food". Be grateful for what you have. Take a week or two off from gossip or any other bad habit that drives a stake between you and God's unrelenting love.
Christ is near. Be joyful.