3d Sunday of Advent
Dec. 16, 2012
Luke 3: 10-18
Zeph 3: 14-18
Phil 4: 4-7
Provincial House, New Rochelle
“The crowds asked John the Baptist, ‘What should we do?’” (Luke 3: 10).
|St. John the Baptist, Duomo of Turin|
We may safely presume that the crowds of the Jews coming to John looked down on those 2 professions, tax collecting and soldiering, and for the very reasons implied by John’s answers. Tax collectors as a group, backed by the weight of Roman authority, gouged the people and grew rich. Soldiers, whether in the employ of Herod in Galilee, of Philip in Ituraea and Trachonitis, of Lysanias in Abilene, or of Pilate in Judea—names we heard in last Sunday’s gospel (cf. Luke 3:1-2)—had a tendency to abuse their power in multiple ways, such as we continue to hear and read in the flow of news from anywhere in the Third World and in rare cases also about our own soldiers. For that matter, I was just in Fredericksburg, where one feature of the occupation of the city by the Union troops 150 years ago last week was the wholesale looting of the town—the 1st, shocking time that was ever done by an American army.
Streets of Fredericksburg, Va., after the shelling and looting of the city by Union troops, Dec. 11-12, 1862 (www.nps.gov/frsp)
John clearly calls for repentance, specific acts that demonstrate a change in one’s attitude and behavior. Whatever popular opinion about tax collectors and soldiers may have been, John doesn’t exclude anyone from his invitation, or his challenge if you will; from this opportunity for saving repentance, this new chance to find favor with God. What’s noteworthy, and what is universally applicable, is that John challenges each one in the crowd to change his behavior in relation to his state of life; not to change his profession; not to perform some dramatic or heroic deed; but to do his own duty, fulfill his own responsibilities with respect and care for others, like the respect and care indicated by giving an extra cloak to someone who doesn’t have one.
Each of us can imagine what answer John might give to us were we to ask him today, “Teacher, what should we do?” (Luke 3:12). What might it be that I, a 21st-century Catholic; I, a 21st-century religious, am doing that I ought to stop doing; what is it that I’m not doing that I should be doing? If we don’t want to think about that right now, we’ll have a chance to do so tomorrow evening during our DOR.
The people coming to John are eager to become better people because they are “filled with expectation” (3:15), expectation of the coming of the Messiah—kind of like kids filled with expectation at this time of year for someone’s coming, usually not Jesus’. (In the comic strip Shoe on Friday, Schuyler was asked in school to define “eternity.” He answered, “From now until Christmas.”)
Insofar as we believe that the Messiah has already come, our expectation is realized. Insofar as we “await the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come,” we’re still filled with expectation—and still have time (not an “eternity,” to be sure, but limited time) to prepare for the 2d Coming.
But having already come once, not with the fire that John may have envisioned but certainly with greater might than John wielded, certainly in the power of the Holy Spirit, Jesus is already present. As the prophet Zephaniah sings today, “The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, a mighty Savior!” (3:15,17). Both Zephaniah (3:14) and Paul (Phil 4:4-5) call upon us to shout for joy, to rejoice at the Lord’s nearness. Zephaniah adds that the Lord himself rejoices in his people, the people to whom he is close, the people whom he has redeemed by removing the judgment against them and turning away their enemies (3:15), the people whom he loves (cf. 3:17). Zephaniah’s Lord offers security, and Paul assures the Philippians that they will experience God’s peace because he is close them in Jesus Christ.
The Lord has come to us in his call, in his gift of Baptism and the other sacraments that express his living presence in our midst, in the vocation he’s offered us, in the brothers he’s given us. So many examples of his abiding presence, his constant love!
The Philippians passage is very familiar to us because of its use on the feast of Don Bosco. Our father was a saint of joy and urged us to be joyful, or cheerful, because the Lord is close to us, always in our midst (like his Mother, too). To be sure, Don Bosco had moments of discouragement early in his apostolic ministry, such as the one he describes in the Filippi brothers’ field just before Pancrazio Soave came along to speak to him about Francis Pinardi’s shed. We can imagine that he turned often to Fr. Cafasso in discouragement or uncertainty. But generally, whatever his many troubles were—dealing with the government; finding money to feed and shelter his boys; dodging assassination attempts; mourning the death of his mother, of a pupil, of a Salesian; contending with episcopal and Roman opposition to his new congregation, etc.—despite all his troubles, he was an example of “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!” (Zeph 3:16), an example of “Have no anxiety at all, but in everything…make your requests known to God” (Phil 4:6).
Filippi brothers complain to DB about the boys tearing up the grass in their field (Nino Musio)
The joy of the prophet, the joy of the Apostle—writing from a prison cell, no less—the good cheer of our founder, all these come from utter confidence in God’s nearness, God’s love for his people collectively and his love for them individually. To go back to John the Baptist’s preaching, we may say that they were confident of being part of the wheat that the Lord intends to gather into his barn (Luke 3:17). Theirs isn’t Alfred E. Neuman’s “What, me worry?” confidence, but a confidence born of what the Lord has done, what the Lord has promised, what they have experienced thru their own closeness to the Lord. Each of us certainly has his troubles, his burdens, his worries, whether personal or apostolic, whether physical, emotional, or spiritual. But can any of us say that his troubles are bigger than Paul’s were? than Don Bosco’s were? We may take courage from them—and imitate their example of clinging to the Lord in “prayer and petition” and in our sacramental life. With God as our savior, we may indeed be confident, unafraid (cf. Is 12:2), and ever joyful.
 John Bosco, Memoirs of the Oratory of St. Francis de Sales, trans. Daniel Lyons (New Rochelle, 2010), ch. 39.
 St. Joseph Cafasso, Don Bosco’s confessor and spiritual director.