I preached this homily at the 5pm Masses on December 15th/16th at the Cathedral of Christ the King.
3rd Sunday of Advent (Gaudete Sunday) – Cycle C (Zephaniah 3:14-18a; Philippians 4:4-7); Luke 3:10-18)
Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent, better known as Gaudete Sunday. Gaudete is the Latin word that means “Rejoice!” It’s as if the Church is giving us a joy-filled timeout during this penitential season of preparation just to say, “Are you ready, because what you are preparing for is going to be great!!!”
I want to start my homily by focusing on John the Baptist. He was a disconcerting character. After all, he did walk around in animal skins and survived on locusts and honey. If we encountered someone like him on the street today, we’d be tempted to smile politely and quickly cross to the other side of the street. But as odd as his life style might have been, there was something intensely attractive about John. People were drawn to him. Why? Because holiness is attractive. Yeah. Holiness attracts like a magnet. They came from near and far and hung on his every word. In last week’s Gospel, John called the people to repent, to radically change their lives; to turn away from their sin. John is preparing the people for Jesus’ entry into the world and into their lives.
Today’s Gospel passage picks up where last week’s left off. After they hear John’s impassioned call to repent, the people ask John HOW they should respond. There was a large crowd gathered to hear John speak. But in his telling of the event, Luke goes out of his way to identify two groups who were present in the crowd, the tax collectors and soldiers. The Jews despised tax collectors and soldiers as traitors to their Roman conquerors. Luke makes it clear that these despised people both heard and responded to John’s call. Luke let’s his readers and us know that John’s call to repentance is universal. No matter who we are, no matter what we have done in life, the call to repentance and holiness is meant for all of us.
As John explains to each group how to respond to his invitation, the people’s excitement and joy begin to build. They are now part of something that is bigger than themselves. When John senses the people are attributing their joy to John himself, he quickly corrects them when he says, “I am baptizing you with water, but one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire!” The long awaited messiah is coming soon and he, NOT John, is the cause for their joy.
All three of our readings today speak in unison that our source of true joy is God drawing near to his people. In our first reading, the prophet Zephaniah announces God’s favor upon the people. They had turned away from their sin and have now turned back towards God. God welcomes them back with open arms. “Sing joyfully, O Israel! Be glad and exult with all your heart. The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.
In today’s second reading, St. Paul exhorts the Philippians, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! The Lord is near.”
And this is a joy that transcends the tragedies of this life. In a message to the people of Newtown, Connecticut, Pope Benedict asked for “… God’s consolation for those who mourn; for strength and sustenance for the entire community, especially in the form of forgiveness, hope and reconciling love.” We mourn for and with the people of Newtown. But even in the midst of this tragedy we take comfort knowing that God who is the source of our joy, drew close to the people in Newtown. He was with them in that school, welcoming the dying into his arms and mourning with those who were left behind. He was with them when a group of priests meeting at a parish just down the street from the school dropped what they were doing and rushed to the scene to lend whatever aid and comfort they could give to the wounded and dying. We hold on to our joy as at the same time, we hold on to one another to get through the tragedies of life – because God is present to us through them all.
When he announced the Year of Faith, Pope Benedict reminded the people of God, that there is tremendous joy in encountering Christ. But our encounter isn’t just an intellectual exercise, knowing the Church’s doctrine or a set of facts about Jesus. No. Our joy comes from an intimate encounter with the living God. Our Lord draws near to us every time we celebrate Mass together. We experience our Lord in a very personal and intimate way – first through his living word and then by consuming his very essence into our bodies.
My brothers and sisters, Christmas quickly approaches. Gaudete Sunday calls us to experience the same anticipatory joy that John’s listeners experienced. For the rest of this Mass, I ask you to put yourself alongside the soldiers and tax collectors in today’s Gospel passage. Ask the Lord what he would have you do during the remaining days of this Advent season to respond to this universal call to holiness. We have a moment of silence just after my homily. Ask him then! Say, “Lord, tell me one way I can prepare my heart for your coming at Christmas.” Ask Jesus just like John’s followers asked him. And then spend the rest of Mass joyfully listening through the songs, through the prayers. Listen! Because if you ask, he will answer.
When we engage with our God in this way, asking for his guidance and responding as we are directed, our lives are transformed. We become holy and my brothers and sisters, John the Baptist proved that holiness is attractive! There is a joy that overflows out of our relationship with our God that floods into the lives of those around us.
Our holiness, our joy, both individually and as the body of Christ, has the power to transform; the power to transform the lives of those we encounter; and ultimately the power to transform society from the inside out. May the rest of our Advent be a time of joyful anticipation that prepares our hearts for Christmas and transforms our lives and the lives of all those we touch. Oh yes, holiness is attractive! Let us respond to John’s call to radical conversion by asking our God what he would have us do; and then go out there and be truly joyful, truly holy.