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THE 3rd SUNDAY IN ADVENT (Cycle C)

Readings:
Zephaniah 3:14-18a
Isaiah 12:2-6
Philippians 4:4-7
Luke 3:10-18

All Scripture passages are from the New American Bible unless designated NJB (New Jerusalem Bible), IBHE (Interlinear Bible Hebrew-English), IBGE (Interlinear Bible Greek-English), or LXX (Greek Septuagint Old Testament translation).  CCC designates a citation from the Catechism of the Catholic Church. The word LORD or GOD rendered in all capital letters is, in the Hebrew text, God's Divine Name YHWH (Yahweh).

God's divine plan for mankind is revealed in the two Testaments and that is why we reread and relive the events of salvation history contained in the Old and New Testaments in the Church's Liturgy.  The Catechism teaches that the Liturgy reveals the unfolding mystery of God's plan as we read the Old Testament in light of the New and the New Testament in light of the Old (CCC 1094-1095).

The Theme of this Sunday's Readings: What Then Should We Do to Experience Christ's Joy and Peace?
The Gospel reading gives us the theme for this Sunday's readings.  St. John the Baptist has been going throughout the whole of the Jordan River valley proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins in preparation for the coming of the promised Davidic Messiah and God's Day of Judgment.  Three times we hear the same phrase—from ordinary people in the crowd, from tax-collectors who are ranked among the sinners, and from soldiers—asking John, "What then should we do" to prepare for this event? 

In the First Reading, the Old Testament prophet Zephaniah announces the joy the people will experience when God comes to dwell among His covenant people.  And in the Responsorial Psalm, we repeat the prophet Isaiah's hymn of joy in the promise of the coming of God, "the Holy One of Israel," to bring His people and the nations His gift of salvation.  These are the prophecies St. John the Baptist was born to proclaim.  The angel Gabriel told John's father: "for he will be great in the sight of the Lord ... to prepare a people fit for the Lord" and as John's father, filled with the Holy Spirit proclaimed, God "has raised up a horn [meaning "a strength"] for our salvation within the house of David his servant, even as he promised through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old" (see Lk 1:17b, 69-70).

In the Second Reading, St. Paul admonishes the Christians of Philipi and us to cast aside all our fears and anxieties to rejoice in the Lord because "the Lord is near."  Whatever our struggles in life, we can turn to Him who is able to give us the true peace and happiness that only comes from the graces God gives those who belong to Him and are obedient to His commands.

The message of this Sunday's readings is that during this Advent season we should be asking ourselves the same question that the people asked St. John the Baptist in the Gospel Reading:  "What then should we do" to prepare for the coming of our Lord and Savior as we approach the celebration of the anniversary of the coming of the Holy One to His people in Christ's first Advent and to prepare for the possibility of His return in His Second Advent.  The answer is the same answer St. John the Baptist gave the people of his day—we must repent by turning away from sin and turning  back to God so we can proclaim Christ our Lord and our Savior in acts of love and mercy and enter into the joy of His peace "that surpasses all understanding" (Phil 4:7).

The First Reading Zephaniah 3:14-18a ~ The Joy of God Among Us
14 Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!  Sing joyfully, O Israel!  Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!  15 The LORD has removed the judgment against you, he has turned away your enemies; the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear.  16 On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem: Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!  17 The LORD, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, 18a as one sings at festivals. 

Zephaniah is the ninth of the Minor Prophets and his ministry took place in Jerusalem during the reign of King Josiah (639-609 BC).  The central theme of his prophetic book is Yahweh's "Day of Judgment."  Despite his warnings concerning Yahweh's "Day of divine Judgment" against an apostate covenant people, Zephaniah offers hope in an oracle that tells of the preservation of a faithful remnant of the covenant people who will be the core of a great restoration (3:9-13).  The promise of this glorious restoration becomes a hymn of jubilation in verses 14-18a.

Reading this passage, the Christian is reminded of the scene of the Annunciation (Lk 1:26-38).  The Virgin Mary, a daughter of Zion, is invited to rejoice and not to fear because the Lord is with her (Lk 1:20, 28).  In the Incarnation of the Word, the Lord God did come to dwell among His people, and the salvation that was promised by Zephaniah did come to pass in Mary's son who is the "mighty Savior," the Son of God who has renewed us with His love that was poured out on the altar of the Cross.

Responsorial: Isaiah 12:2-3, 4b-6 ~ Extoling God's Mercy and His Glory
Response: "Cry out with joy and gladness for among you is the great and Holy One of Israel."
 
2 God indeed is my savior; I am confident and unafraid.  My strength and my courage is the LORD, and he has been my savior.  3a With joy you will draw water at the fountain of salvation. Response:
4b Give thanks to the LORD, acclaim his name; among the nations make known his deeds, proclaim how exalted is his name.
Response:
5 Sing praise to the LORD for his glorious achievement; let this be known throughout all the earth.  6 Shout with exultation, O city of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!
Response:

This hymn begins in verse 1 with the words "And, that day...", which refers to "that day" in Isaiah 11:10-12 when the prophet promised the coming of the Davidic heir, the Redeemer-Messiah: That day, the root of Jesse, set up as a signal for the nations, the Gentiles shall seek out, for his dwelling shall be glorious.  11 On that day, the Lord shall again take it in hand to reclaim [ransom] the remnant of his people that is left from Assyria and Egypt, Pathros, Ethiopia [Cush], and Elam, Shinar, Hamath and the isles of the sea. 12 He shall raise a signal for the nations and gather the outcasts of Israel; the dispersed of Judah he shall assemble from the four corners of the earth (emphasis added)

In Isaiah 11:10 the "dwelling" that will be "glorious" is the Kingdom of the new David, the "root of Jesse" (Jesse was David's father), that is the Church of Jesus Christ into which He will "gather the scattered people" from "the four corners of the earth."  The Church sees herself as this "holy remnant" of mankind that has experienced God's salvation in the work of Jesus Christ, and, as in Isaiah's prophecy in chapter 12, she feels called to bear witness to her joy before all mankind.  Therefore, the Council of Vatican II declares: "all sons [and daughters] of the Church should have a lively awareness of their responsibility to the world; they should foster in themselves a truly catholic spirit; they should spend their forces in the work of evangelization.  And yet, let everyone know that their first and most important obligation for the spread of the Faith is this: to lead a profoundly Christian life" (Ad gentes, 36).

The canticle of praise in Chapter 12:1-6 expresses joy for all parts of Israelite society:

  1. Verses 1-2 express the individual's response to God's redemptive works: the subject "You will say" (verse 1) is in the masculine singular.
  2. In verses 3-5 the focus changes: the subject and verbs are in the plural as the entire community joins in praising God and in proclaiming the goodness of His works.
  3. In verse 6 the tense is in the feminine singular in expressing the joy of God present among His covenant people.

(Encountering the Book of Isaiah, Bryan E. Beyer, page 91).

In verse 2 Isaiah describes the joy the redeemed sinner experiences because of God's great work on his behalf that inspires both trust and gratitude.  God was angry (verse 1), but how His anger is spent and He comforts His people.  Because God is the source of salvation, each individual of the covenant people knows he can trust God and not fear Him.  The line from verse 2 in the literal Hebrew translation: for Yahweh is my strength and my song, he has been my salvation is similar to the Song of Victory Moses and the Israelites sang after the miracle of the parting of the Sea of Reeds and their deliverance from the Egyptians; the literal translation of Exodus 15:2 is: Yah is my strength and my song, to him I owe my deliverance.  "Yah" is the shortened form of the divine name "Yahweh."  In this hymn of praise, Isaiah recognizes God's deliverance of His people as another miracle akin to the Sea of Reeds/Red Sea miracle.

In verses 3-5, Isaiah changes the focus from the individual to the entire covenant community who praises God for bringing them "water from the springs of salvation" and "Praise Yahweh, invoke his name.  Proclaim his deeds to the people," a passage that is from Psalm 105:1, a psalm that recounts the wonderful history of Israel.  The wording "water from the springs of salvation" is significant.  In Israel water came from the River Jordan, from many streams, from underground well-water, from the collection of rainwater in cisterns, but the best, freshest water came from natural springs.  In the canticle, the people compare the gift of God's salvation to the freshest and best water like the "living" or "flowing" water from natural springs.

Jesus uses the same imagery for salvation with a woman who was drawing water from a well in John 4:4-14 when Jesus offered the Samaritan woman "living water" and promised that whoever drank of this water would never thirst again because the "water" Jesus gives is the water that "will become in him a spring of water, welling up for eternal life."

In verses 4-5 the people are grateful for God's works on their behalf.  They show their gratitude when they proclaim His marvelous deeds to their own people and to the nations of the world.

6 Shout with exultation, O city of Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!
In this verse the tense suddenly changes to the feminine singular and Zion, the symbolic word for covenant people as a whole, is personified as a woman.  In the Old Testament, "Zion" is the Church that is symbolically represented as God's virgin Bride.  Perhaps this imagery is what accounts for the feminine singular in this verse.  With the restoration of His people, God's relationship with Israel as His faithful Bride has been reestablished, and He is one with His people in the covenant bond of faithfulness this is symbolized like the covenant bond between a bridegroom and his bride in marriage.  Jesus used this same symbolic imagery, referring to Himself as the "Bridegroom" (Mt 9:15; Lk 5:34-35), and in the Book of Revelation the climax of human history will take place in Jesus' Second Coming when He brings His Bride, the Church, into the heavenly Jerusalem to celebrate the wedding supper of the Lamb and His Bride (Rev 19:6-9; 21:1-7).  This is the event we anticipate during the Season of Advent and for which we must prepare.

The Second Reading Philippians 4:4-7 ~ Rejoice in the Lord
Brothers and sisters: 4 Rejoice in the Lord always.  I shall say it again: rejoice!  5 Your kindness should be known to all.  The Lord is near.  6 Have no anxiety at all, but in everything, by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving, make your requests known to God.  7 Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

St. Paul's message in this passage is even more impressive when we bear in mind that his letter to the Christians at Philippi was written during what was probably his first imprisonment in Rome in c. years 61-63.  When Paul mentions "anxiety" in verse 6, he knows what he is talking about, but despite his current situation, he can still urge the Christians of Philippi to have courage, to rejoice in the Lord Jesus Christ, and to offer up prayers of thanksgiving. 

Paul's point is that in order to have joy it does not matter if we are suffering.  Our current situation is only temporary.  The kind of immense joy that fills the soul of the Christian with peace does not come from the physical or material but from a spirit of faithfulness that comes from the knowledge that God is with us and has a plan for our lives.  St. Cyprian wrote: "This is the difference between us and those who do not know God.  They complain in adversity, but difficulties do not draw us away from virtue or from the true faith.  On the contrary, our virtue and faith are reinforced in affliction" (De mortalitate, 13).

The Gospel of Luke 3:10-18 ~ The preaching of John the Baptist
10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"  11 He said to them in reply, "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none.  And whoever has food should do likewise."  12 Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him, "Teacher, what should we do?"  13 He answered them, "Stop collecting more than what is prescribed."  14 Soldiers also asked him, "And what is it that we should do?"  He told them, "Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages."  15 Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah.  16 John answered them all, saying, "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 will the Holy Spirit and fire.  17 His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."  18 Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people. 

John the Baptist was preaching and giving a ritual baptism of repentance and spiritual purification on the east side of the Jordan River across from the city of Jericho (Jn 1:28).  Two significant events in salvation history took place on the east side of the Jordan River across from the west bank city of Jericho:

  1. The Israelites made their last camp at the end of their 40 year wilderness journey on the east side of the Jordan River across from Jericho.  It was at this point on the east side of the Jordan that Joshua (Yeshua/Yehoshua) led the invasion of Canaan and the conquest of the Promised Land.
  2. It was the site where the prophet Elijah was taken up into heaven.
    See Num 22:1; 30:12; Josh 3:1; 2 Kng 2:1-14.

It is likely that this was the site where St. John first began his ministry in offering a baptism of ritual cleansing for the repentance of sins.  John was blessed with the power and spirit of the 8th century BC prophet Elijah (Lk 1:17), and it would have been fitting for John to begin his ministry at the same site where Elijah's ministry ended and where the ministry of his more powerful successor began—the prophet Elisha (2 Kg 2:1, 4-14).  It is also where John will baptize Jesus (Yeshua/Yehoshua in Aramaic), the one who is more powerful than John, who will then cross over from the east to the west side of the Jordan to begin His conquest against sin and death that will result in the conquest of Heaven, the true Promised Land for God's people.

St. John's preaching style was not gentle—today he might be compared to a "fire and brimstone" preacher.  In his discourse in Luke 3:8-18, St. John identifies himself as the "prophetic voice" of Isaiah 40:3-5 whose mission is to tell the people to prepare for the coming of the Lord, and he warns the people that:

  1. Good works are evidence of true repentance.
  2. They must demonstrate acts of mercy and justice to save them from divine judgment.
  3. The coming of the Messiah and divine judgment is eminent.

10 And the crowds asked him, "What then should we do?"
Three times in verses 10, 12, and 14 people in crowd asked what they should do to demonstrate genuine repentance and to avoid divine judgment; these include: the general members of the crowd, tax collectors who are identified as sinners, and soldiers.  The "soldiers" may be Gentile Romans who are so-called "God-fearers" who acknowledge the God of Israel and take instruction at the Temple but haven't gone so far as to convert.  Or they could be members of the Levitical guard—the Levites who guard the Temple and serve the chief priests.  St. John told the people in the crowd that they needed to demonstrate their repentance by righteous living according to God's Law and righteous deeds in treating their fellowman/woman with mercy, respect and justice.  See verses 10-14.

The link between demonstrating faith in God through works of mercy and righteousness that leads to salvation has been a consistence teaching in the Church of the Old and New Testaments.  For example, the prophet Jeremiah wrote: I, the LORD, alone prove the mind and test the heart, to reward everyone according to his ways, according to the merit of his deeds (Jer 17:10).  The merit of one's deeds counts toward one's salvation, as the inspired writer of Sirach wrote: Water quenches a flaming fire, and alms atone for sins (Sir 3:29).  In the New Testament, Jesus based the final outcome of the Last Judgment on one's earthly record of demonstrations of works of mercy (Mt 25:31-46).  St. James wrote What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works?  Can faith save him? (Jm 2:14) ...See how a person is justified by works and not by faith alone (Jm 2:24) ... For just as a body without a spirit is dead, so also faith without works is dead (Jm 2:26).  Also see CCC 1473 for the necessity of works of mercy and CCC 2447 for the significance and kinds of works of mercy.

15 Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Messiah.
John's call to repentance of sins through a ritual of water purification and his warnings of divine judgment for those who oppress the weak and disadvantaged probably reminded the people of the prophecies of the Messiah in the books of the prophets.

16 John answered them all, saying, "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 will the Holy Spirit and fire. 
St. John denies that he is the Messiah, and he tells the crowd that in contrast to his baptism with water, the Messiah will baptize with the Holy Spirit and with fire.  It is an event that is literally fulfilled on the Jewish feast of Pentecost fifty days after Jesus' Resurrection in Acts 2:1-14, and is a fulfillment of the prophecy of the purifying and refining characteristics of the Messiah prophesied by the prophets Ezekiel and Malachi:

St. John warns the people of a final day of Judgment when the Messiah comes: 17 His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." 
This verse repeats the divine judgment promised in verse 9 and speaks of the judgment that will be part of the coming of the Redeemer-Messiah.  The threshing floor was a flat area where the harvested grain was brought.  A winnowing fan was a forklike instrument that was used to separate the wheat kernels from the inedible chaff.  The wheat was thrown into the air with the winnowing fork as the breeze blew away the chaff and the good kernels of grain fell to the ground.  The unwanted chaff was burned with fire and destroyed.  The symbolic imagery of the winnowing fan, the threshing floor and the burning of the unwanted chaff is a familiar Old and New Testament Biblical image of judgment in separating the righteous from the wicked and as an image of the final destruction (Job 21:17-18; Is 41:16; Jer 15:7; Wis 5:14, 23; Mt 3:12; 13:30, 40, 42, 50; Lk 3:17; Jn 15:6). 

However, in the Old Testament fire was often a symbol of purification that was more efficacious than water and was a sign of the divine transforming action of God's Spirit in purifying the souls of men and women who still had the hope of salvation (see Sir 2:5; Is 1:25-28; 48:10; Zec 13:9 and Mal 3:2-3 and CCC 696).  This is the same way St. Paul speaks of God's purifying fire in 1 Corinthians 3:10-15 in which the souls of some of the saved must experience a necessary final purification in Purgatory (CCC 1030-32) and why St. Paul urges the Thessalonians not to "quench the Spirit" (1 Thes 5:19).  However, a place of fire which forever goes on consuming that which is defiled and for which purification is no longer an option, as in John's description, is rare in the Old Testament (see Jdt 16:17; Ps 21:8-9; Si 7:17/19; Is 66:24; Zep 1:18) until the coming of Christ when both divine blessings and divine judgments become eternal and in which divine judgment is described as an unquenchable fire (CCC 1033-37).  Jesus refers to this place/state of eternal punishment as Gehenna for those who do not die in a state of grace (Mt 5:22, 29, 30; 10:28; 18:9; 23:15, 33; Mk 9:43, 45, 47; Lk 10:15; 12:5; 16:23; also see Rev 14:10; 19:20; 20:10, 15; 21:8).

St. John uses the familiar imagery of the harvest to teach the people about the Messiah's role as divine judge. The threshing floor is the world.  The Messiah has the authority to separate and judge the righteous from the wicked (Mt 25:31-46).

18  Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people
In Luke 1:19, the angel Gabriel announced the "good news" (evangelizesthai) of the birth of St. John to his father the priest Zechariah, and now John preaches the "good news" (using the same Greek word) of the coming of the Messiah and His kingdom.  It is our covenant obligation to keep our souls in a state of grace and to demonstrate works of kindness and mercy—this is then what we should do to experience Christ's joy and peace as we look forward to the promise of His return.

Catechism References:
Zephaniah 3:14 (CCC 722, 2676); 3:17 (CCC 2676)
Isaiah 12:3 (CCC 2561)
Philippians 4:6-7 (CCC 2633)
Luke 3:10-14 (CCC 535); 3:11 (CCC 2447); 3:16 (CCC 696)

Michal E. Hunt Copyright © 2013