Third Sunday of Advent. Year C. Gaudete Sunday
Our Lady Queen of Peace, Roxborough
Three times in today’s Gospel we hear the question: “What are we to do?” (Lk 3:10, 12, 14). Three different categories of people put this question to John the Baptist: First, the crowd in general; second, the publicans or tax collectors; and, third, some soldiers.
What John says to them boils down to an essential message: give, share, be honest, be generous. He tells the first group, the crowd, to share basic necessities: “The person who has two coats, let him or her share with those who have none; and those who has food, let them do likewise” (v. 11). Then, he tells the second group, the tax collectors, to collect no more than the amount owed. In other words, not to take bribes. He tells the third group, the soldiers, not to extort anything from anyone and to be content with their wages (cf. v. 14).
The point is that John is preparing for Jesus’ coming and we know that the heart of Jesus’ life and preaching is: love your neighbour as yourself. There is greater joy in giving than in receiving.
The third Sunday of Advent is often called “Gaudete Sunday” or “Rejoicing Sunday”. It has this name for a few reasons. On the one hand, Advent is itself a time of joy because we’re preparing for a special Guest coming at Christmas. But specifically the readings today speak about joy. The prophet Zephaniah says to us today: “Shout for joy, daughter of Zion”, addressing Jerusalem (Zeph 3:14); and the apostle Paul exhorts the Christians of Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always” (Phil 4:4). Yes, as the Readings tell us, there is joy because God is with us. We need not be afraid. “There is no need to worry; but if there is anything you need, pray for it, asking God for it with prayer”. Joy too because God will renew you by his love. Yes, when we experience God and love, we can go out of ourselves and help others and God comes more into our lives. We discover there’s more to life than simply having things.
Some years ago Ryan Tubridy read a letter from parents whose 8 year old daughter wrote to Santa and didn’t ask for any presents but instead asked him to bring the ‘secret of happiness’. Now while Santa can bring a lot of things he can’t bring us the kind of joy that only God can give us. Joy is not superficial feeling good. It’s something deeper. It is rooted in our relationship with God and neighbour.
I was asked this week at a retreat I attended – “what you gives you hope?” It’s a great question. I remembered an image someone shared with me years ago. He said: notice how if you are buttoning your shirt or jacket, if you get the first button wrong, the other buttons don’t match. His point was that the first point in the Christian life is to believe in God’s love for you, for us, for our world. It can be hard to believe this at times. But faith in God’s love is the first point to which we need to come back to again and again. It gives us strength to be generous and loving in our turn. And that opens the door to joy. It’s what deep down people are looking for. That’s what they went to John the Baptist to find.
A final story I heard recently. It’s from a man in Italy whose long-term prison sentence had come to an end. I myself visited Limerick prison this week so this story struck me. The man thought he’d be able start life again, but as usually happens, even if a person has paid his or her debt to society, he or she still seem very suspect to people. He found the doors shut in his search for work. He had to beg on the streets and for seven months he ended up living on the streets. But then he met John who, through the organisation he started, helps prisoners’ families. John said to the ex-prisoner: ‘If you want to start again, come with me.’ For a year this ex-prisoner has been helping John and others prepare pay packets for these families. And he says in doing this work he sees a reflection of himself. This is how he puts it: “I see the dignity of these women with husbands in prison, who are alone with little children, living in desperate situations, waiting for someone to give them a bit of comfort, a bit of love. Giving myself I’ve rediscovered my own dignity as a human being, and my life has meaning. I’ve more strength because I’ve God in my heart, and I feel I’m loved.”
Believing, giving and Joy are linked. That’s today’s message for the week ahead.