3rd Sunday of Advent (C)
Readings: Zephaniah 3:14-18; Isaiah 12; Philippians 4:4-7; Luke 3:10-18
Sisters and brothers, have you ever watched someone trying to pacify a crying baby? Or maybe you’ve done it yourself. What does it feel like? Is it easy? Or difficult? What do you think? I don’t have any first-hand experience. But I have seen it being done. And it varies, doesn’t it? Sometimes it’s very hard. Everything you try just doesn’t seem to work. The baby refuses to stop crying. But, at other times, it’s easy. Like magic.
For example, I recently found myself in a crowded MRT train. Where I saw a young family. Separated by the crowd. The mommy and an older child were seated at one corner of the carriage. The daddy was standing at the other end. Accompanied by the baby in a stroller. The train stopped. And many of the people, who were standing between mommy and daddy, got off. Allowing the baby to catch sight of his mom. Immediately, he started crying very loudly. The daddy quickly pushed the stroller over to where his wife was. And, like magic, the crying stopped at once. In fact, not only did the baby stop crying, he even started to smile broadly. Happy, no doubt, to be reunited with mommy. That was all he wanted. To be close to his mother. It was quite an amusing and amazing sight. The transformation of a crybaby into a smile-baby. A noisy burden into a bundle of joy.
I’m reminded of this today, because I think our readings present us with something similar. On this 3rd Sunday of Advent. Which we call Gaudete–or Rejoice!–Sunday, our readings seek to transform us in the same way that the baby was transformed. And it’s important for us to consider carefully just how this is done. How God consoles God’s people. Transforming crybabies into smile-babies. Broken hearts into joyful spirits.
To do this, we need to consider what it is that prevents us from being truly happy. The obstacles to experiencing joy. The first of these obstacles is expressed in a word that keeps getting repeated in our readings. The word is fear. The first reading talks about the fear of enemies. And the fear of evil. The second reading mentions something similar to fear. Worry. Worry about not getting what we need to live well. And to this list we can probably add our own fears. Fear of failure… Fear of not having enough… Fear of not being enough… Fear of remaining single… Fear of staying married… Fear of pain… Fear of death…
Fear and worry. Two obstacles to joy. And how do our readings console those of us who are fearful and worried? By encouraging us to trust. To trust in God. In the words of the responsorial psalm: Truly, God is my salvation, I trust, I shall not fear. For the Lord is my strength, my song, he became my saviour. Or the second reading: There is no need to worry, but if there is anything you need, pray for it… Trusting that God will provide.
And yet, my dear friends, isn’t all this much easier said than done? Surely, we know that we need to trust God. But knowing it in my head and putting it into practice in my life are two very different things, aren’t they? So how do I bridge the huge gap between theory and practice? Between trust in my head and trust in my life? To answer this question, we need to go further. We need to consider the deeper reasons for our fear. I’m not sure about you, sisters and brothers, but one of the deeper reasons for my fear is actually the thought, or suspicion, that I am all alone. Alone in my weakness and helplessness. Alone to face challenges that I simply do not have the power to overcome.
But is it really true? Am I really all alone? Well, no. For my faith tells me that God is always with me to save me. Which is why there is actually an even deeper reason why I find it difficult to be joyful. An even deeper reason why I so easily succumb to fear. Why I find it difficult to trust. And that reason is forgetfulness. The forgetfulness of unbelief. I forget my faith. I forget what the first reading insists on reminding me. The Lord, the king of Israel, is in your midst. I forget that I am not alone. That God is close. Ever by my side. Just like how that mother on the MRT was close to her baby. The reading goes even further. Not only is God by my side, God is also on my side. God takes great delight in me. In us. He will exult with joy over you, he will renew you by his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival. Can anything be more incredible, more consoling, than that?
Against the poison of fear born of forgetfulness, our readings offer us the powerful antidote of memory leading to trust. They invite us to remember the promises of God. And the different ways that God has fulfilled these promises in our lives. Most notably by sending Jesus to be the sacrifice that takes away our sins. And also through all the many particular blessings that we have enjoyed, and continue to enjoy, in our own lives. Blessings that I too easily forget. Take for granted. Blessings that speak to me of God’s immense love and care for me. God’s powerful presence and action in my life.
So this is what I need to do whenever I tend toward discouragement and despair. Whenever I find myself getting lost in forgetfulness. In faithlessness. I need to remember that I am not alone. And also that I am loved. Deeply loved by a God whose name is Emmanuel. God-with-us. God-for-us. And this remembering will then help me to experience what St. Paul promises the Philippians in the second reading: that the peace of God… will guard your hearts and your thoughts, in Christ Jesus.
But that’s not all, sisters and brothers. The gospel also helps us to overcome two other forms of forgetfulness. Two other obstacles that prevent us from experiencing joy. The first is found in the advice that John the Baptist gives to the people who ask him what they must do to repent. He tells them to share what they have with those who have not. And to be careful not to take more than their due. In other words, practice mercy and justice. Why? Because mercy and justice help me to remember something else that I also often forget. Not only that I am not alone. But also that I have a responsibility for others. For my brothers and sisters. And especially for those most in need.
Second, just when people were beginning to think that John might be the Christ, he responds by telling them, and in no uncertain terms, that he is not the Messiah. Now this may sound a little strange, sisters and brothers, but this is also something that I often forget. That I am not the Messiah. That even though I am responsible for others. To help them in some way. I cannot save them. I cannot even save myself. Like the Baptist, my role is only to prepare the way for the true Saviour. The One who is coming. The One who is far more powerful than I am.
So I am not alone, and I am deeply loved. I am responsible for others, but I am not the Messiah. These, my dear friends, are the things that I too easily forget. And these are also the things that our readings are helping me to remember. So that my heart can be better prepared to welcome the true Messiah. The One who comes to bring peace and joy. To me. To us. To the rest of the world.
Sisters and brothers, as we celebrate Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday, how is God consoling you? Consoling us? Transforming us from crybabies into smile-babies today?