Today is commonly called Gaudete Sunday; that word Gaudete means rejoice and joy is the principal theme of the first two readings. We don’t hear much from the Prophet Zephaniah in the Lectionary but this passage is an interesting one; it speaks about the coming of the Messiah and it tells us that day will be a day of rejoicing not just for the whole people but for the Lord himself. He even pictures the Messiah dancing with joy on that great day.
Then in the short reading from Philippians St Paul tells his readers that since the Lord is very near their attitude should be one of happiness and joy. He tells them to ask the Lord for those things they need and then in very lovely words he invokes the peace of God upon them. From this we can see the great concern and tenderness that St Paul has for these new Christians.
The Gospel reading focusses on St John the Baptist and in particular on his teaching. His instructions are not arduous, he straightforwardly tells the people to share and to have a concern for the poor. As to the tax collectors and soldiers, he merely tells them not to extort money from the people. We should not think that these are Roman soldiers but since they are with the tax collectors we can imagine that they were some kind of locally recruited auxiliary force intended to protect the tax collectors who were universally unpopular.
John makes it very clear to the people that he is not the Christ but is merely the one instructed by God to prepare the people for his coming. From the text it is obvious that John the Baptist does not know what kind of Messiah Jesus is going to be. He seems to go along with the idea prevalent at the time that the Messiah was to come as a mighty warrior and be the one who is to judge the people, hence the reference to the winnowing fan which separates the wheat from the chaff.
Of course, in the event Jesus, when he does come, proves himself to be a very different kind of Messiah. He is almost the opposite of what the people expected. He turns out to be a healer and teacher. And rather than come as a judge, he comes to seek out sinners and to reconcile them with God and their fellow man.
Jesus comes not so much to judge as to save. He comes with a gentle and healing touch. He shows himself to be especially fond of the poor and lowly and his predominant characteristic is his compassion for others. This is as far away as you could get from the triumphant kind of Messiah that the people were led to expect. Jesus comes humbly. He is not carried on a mighty chariot but rather walks through the country on his own two feet. His entrance into Jerusalem was not preceded by fanfares and soldiers; rather it was markedly inauspicious, it was on a donkey and he was accompanied by a few poor people waving palm leaves.
As we have seen, John the Baptist was not at all sure what kind of Messiah Jesus would turn out to be. Most probably he believed that the Messiah would come in glory and triumph and be a judge of the people. Jesus did not turn out like that, however those ideas have not gone away because we realise that, although Jesus has now returned to the Father, when he comes at the end of time it will be to gather the nations and to preside over them as a merciful judge. On that day there surely will be great glory and the angels and all the saints will be there to witness the Final Judgement of the world.
Lack of knowledge as to Christ’s true character was no obstacle to John. He knew a few things; he was aware of who Jesus was, after all he was a relation of his; but he did not know precisely what kind of Messiah he would turn out to be. Yet this did not deter him from telling to people to act justly and to prepare themselves for the coming of the Christ.
From this we can learn something, and it is that while our knowledge of the faith may be imperfect or even a bit sketchy, we should not let this lack of knowledge deter us. Our mission in the world is actually very similar to that of John the Baptist. It is our task to tell those around us that Christ has come to save us, that people should repent of their sins and embrace the salvation that he offers us.
Lack of knowledge about the faith should not deter us from this evangelical mission. I suppose we might call it learning by doing. The more we proclaim the message of God then the more we understand it. If we are afraid to proclaim then we will remain in ignorance.
Pope Paul VI in his great letter on evangelisation pointed out that those who evangelise others are actually evangelised by them in return. He noted that those who spread the Gospel to others automatically grow in faith themselves. With this in mind we should renew our efforts at evangelisation. We should share our faith with others. We should pray together as a family. We should not hesitate to talk with others about our faith. In these ways we grow in faith and in hope and in love.
The Christmas season is almost upon us. As it approaches, we become ever more conscious of the Christmas story. The mysteries of this wonderful season in the liturgical year gradually unfold before us. We find ourselves being drawn in to that stable in Bethlehem. Nativity plays and carol services draw us again to the scriptures and we are reminded of the mysteries of Christ’s birth. And we are reminded too of that other birth; the birth of Christ in our hearts, the entering in to our lives of our loving Saviour.
If we do one thing only this Christmas it should be to let him be born anew in our hearts so that he may fill us with his truth and love.
Father Alex McAllister SDS
Parish Priest of
St Thomas à Becket