We have all heard how Advent is a season of expectation, of waiting for the coming of Jesus Christ, when we recall the many centuries that the world waited for the coming of the Messiah, fulfilled when Jesus Christ was born in Bethlehem. When I was a kid, though, for me this was a season of waiting for the coming of presents. Along with my birthday, it was one of two times during the year when I would get stuff, and so I looked forward to it with eager expectation. In fact, by the time Advent rolled around, the excitement I felt was already at fever pitch. And there were these steps along the way during Advent that would only heighten my excitement: the Christmas bazaar at our parish, then St. Nicholas’ Day, when we’d get candy in our shoes, setting out our Manger scene, then getting our Christmas tree, and so on, so that by Christmas Eve I was spinning like a top.
So for me, it was all a season of pure, unadulterated joy. And joy is what this third Sunday of Advent is about: that’s why we light a rose-colored candle and the priest wears a rose-colored chasuble. While purple, the traditional color of Advent, is a darker, more somber color, rose is lighter both in color and in the mood which it is supposed to convey; it symbolizes joy. It is a visual reminder to us that, in the midst of this season of waiting and expectation, we already have reason to rejoice.
That is what our first two readings today from the prophet Zephaniah and St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians are about. “Shout for joy, sing joyfully,” and “Rejoice in the Lord always; I say it again, ‘Rejoice!’” The message here is very clear: even as we wait for the coming of Christ, we have reason to be joyful.
Perhaps you don’t feel joyful, or are wondering what there is to be joyful about. Certainly, if you spend a lot of time with the news, there seems to be a constant stream of bad news, and it only seems to get worse. We’re coming to the end of 2018, and soon the different media outlets will be doing their year in review reports, and we’ll be reminded of all the bad things that have happened this year, some of which we’re probably already forgetting, because they’ve been succeeded by other bad things. There’s no shortage of bad news, and there never has been. But remember, all of these media outlets are competing for our attention. They’re looking for people to read their articles and Twitter feeds, watch their videos, and so on. And they know that by keeping us in a constant state of agitation, we are more likely to click on their articles and videos, to see what else we should be outraged about. Hence the increasingly biased and partisan nature of our news outlets, on both ends of the political spectrum. So I would recommend a little less time with the news, not to mention social media, and more time with actual people such as our friends and loved ones and even people we don’t know very well; this would do all of us much good.
But back to the reason to be joyful. Our readings tell us why we can and ought to be joyful. The prophet Zephaniah says, “The Lord is in your midst.” St. Paul says to the Philippians, “The Lord is near.” Both are correct. The Lord is both near in the sense that he never abandons us; he is never far away, and he is coming back to us, probably sooner than we think. And He is in our midst: He is present in the poor, in His Church, in Scripture, in the heart of a soul in a state of grace, and He is most fully present in the Eucharist. Jesus is most certainly in our midst.
And yet we still await his coming, when he comes at last to fulfill all his promises. This is the “already-not yet” of Catholic theology. Jesus has already come, but his promises have not yet been completely fulfilled. So while we await his second coming, we do have work to do. We are like the crowds who approached John the Baptist. It was a time of heightened expectation; there was a sense among the Jewish people that something big was about to happen. Those who knew the Scriptures well could see the signs, which pointed to the belief that the Messiah was coming soon. So the crowds came to John the Baptist, out in the desert by the Jordan River, and asked him what they should do to prepare themselves for the coming of this Messiah.
John gave both general and specific answers to them. He spoke specifically to the tax collectors: “Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.” And he said to the soldiers: “Do not practice extortion; do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.” Clearly those were things that tax collectors and soldiers often did. And John also gave general answers applicable to everyone: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” In essence, what John is talking about is justice, or treating people with justice. Justice means rendering unto someone whatever is their due, or giving to someone what belongs to him. John gives some obvious applications here: don’t cheat people; cheating people is not a matter of justice. Don’t falsely accuse anyone; destroying someone’s reputation for personal gain, or for any reason for that matter, is not just. Those seem fairly obvious to most people, I think. But even more than that, sharing what we have with those who have not is also a matter of justice. If you have been blessed with an abundance of wealth, or material goods, or talents, you have a duty to share those things with those who have not been blessed with them. In other words, as a matter of justice, the poor actually deserve or have a right to some of what we have. And, believe it or not, by virtue of the fact that we have been born in the place and time we were, we have been blessed with an abundance that many people around the world will never have. We have an obligation to help others; that is simply a matter of justice, of giving to others what is their due. In other words, acts of charity and mercy – good deeds.
So, one important and necessary way to prepare our own hearts for the coming of the Lord is by performing good deeds to others. It does not have to be complicated. Sharing what you have with others. Giving to charity. Spending time with family. Spending time with someone who might be lonely. Putting your talents at the service of others. I encourage you to reflect on what you are doing and what you could be doing. Ask the Lord to help you to see what he wants you to do.
When we do these things, we prepare our hearts for the coming of the Lord. And if we are ready to welcome him when he comes, no matter what is going on in the world or in our lives, we don’t have to wait for Christmas to rejoice, for we already have reason to rejoice even now.