Third Sunday of Advent - a reflection

Monday, December 13, 2021 - 10:00

Fr. Patrick Fitzgerald-Lombard, O.Carm., is parish priest of the parish of St. Thomas of Canterbury, Mayfield, Sussex. He is a member of the Aylesford Community. Today, Fr. Patrick is reflecting on the readings from yesterday's Mass. Please read Fr Patrick's introduction and please re-look at the readings for Sunday before continuing (these will open in a separate window for ease of reading):

“Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice.” So says Saint Paul to the Philippians in a letter noted for its tone of joy. That note of joy we heard last week when Saint Paul began this letter with thanksgiving for the Church and how he prays for them with joy. This Sunday is known as Gaudete Sunday yet the theme of the whole season of Advent must be Gaudete. Giving this Sunday its name is making a parallel with Laetere Sunday in Lent and seeing Advent as a mini-Lent which it is not. Repentance is there as we will see in the Gospel but the dominant note is that of rejoicing because the Lord is near.

That said, I have to say that I have been puzzled for years about the Jerusalem translation we hear at Mass which says “I want you to be happy…” It is remarkable that Paul’s good strong imperative “Rejoice” has been reduced to something so weak, something which reminds me of the late Ken Dodd. There is far more than our happiness at stake here. Paul’s prayer is that the peace of God will guide our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.

The prophecy of Zephaniah also ends with a great song of joy. As with the reading from Baruch last week, salvation is following judgement. Much of this short prophecy speaks of the great day of the Lord, a day of wrath and devastation. Then the note changes as the shameless nation is given the opportunity to be a renewed nation, shouting aloud because the Lord has repealed their sentence. The Lord your God is in your midst is said twice, rejoicing over them with gladness.

That leads us to what may be the most important reading of this Sunday, the canticle from Isaiah which forms the responsorial psalm. The importance of this canticle can be seen by the frequency with which the Church uses it. It is found at the Easter Vigil, the feast of the Baptism of the Lord and the feast of the Sacred Heart, all important celebrations. It is as well therefore to be alert to this canticle whenever it appears. Yet this song with its various themes is especially appropriate to Advent. It is the conclusion to the first part of the book of Isaiah which contains the great messianic prophecies. It has been adapted for the liturgy so reading the original in your Bible will show how its two halves fit together. The opening verse, which is not used, marks this canticle as a song of thanksgiving because God’s anger has passed. Like Zephaniah, the song celebrates how great in our midst is the Holy One of Israel.

And the canticle announces that it is with joy that we draw water from the wells of salvation, joy once again. Yet here arises an important point about translations. The traditional Douay Rheims Bible follows the Latin Vulgate which for a thousand years was the Bible of the Western Church. Translations into other languages only came to the fore in the sixteenth century following the development of printing. For this canticle we find in the Latin “Behold, God is my Saviour” and “with joy you will draw water from the Saviour’s fountains”. Modern Bibles follow the Hebrew by using “salvation”. Likewise with the Rorate Caeli, a traditional Advent antiphon. It speaks of the earth yielding a Saviour rather than salvation. With the Hebrew original so dominant today we need to be aware of these differences which are so important in our tradition1. Saviour makes more sense to me because it indicates a specific person, the longed for Saviour for whose coming we await. Meantime we also draw water from the wells of our Saviour which for me is a sign of the sacramental life of the Church. We are reminded of the great encounter in the Gospel of John between Jesus and the Samaritan Women and the water he gives her to drink, water welling up to eternal life.

With all that joy, we then find a very different note being struck in the Gospel as we hear about the preaching and call to repentance of John the Baptist. Each evangelist portrays a different John the Baptist according to their needs. Luke gives John a foot in the Christian camp by making him a cousin of Jesus. Yet the John about whom we hear this Advent is like a prophet of the Old Testament. I noted last week the classic expression which is used to introduce prophets: “the word of the Lord came to John…” Notable too is that Luke gives a more developed account of John’s preaching and the reaction to it than the other evangelists.

As with the stories of their birth and childhood, which we will be looking at next Sunday, Luke keeps John separate from Jesus; it is not said by whom Jesus was baptised. Thus Luke completes his account of the ministry of John before Jesus comes on scene. We heard the introduction of John last week, with the historical background and the quotation from the prophet Isaiah. John’s preaching to the crowds is omitted so that the Gospel this Sunday begins with the response of the crowd to what he says. It is better though to look at the whole of John’s ministry so as to place this Sunday’s Gospel in its context.

Following on from what we heard last Sunday, Luke gives a sample of John’s preaching. The wording is the same as Matthew’s version. Yet Matthew has Jesus addressing Pharisees and Sadducees whereas here in Luke the preaching is public to the crowds We can place ourselves among the crowd as we hear the challenge to our complacency. It is the crowd who are addressed as a brood of vipers not just the leaders. The warning to bring forth fruits worthy of repentance is for everyone. This is followed by the first part of this Sunday’s Gospel as the crowd react and ask what they must do, the question is stated three times. Specific groups are mentioned like tax collectors and soldiers but in modern terms we would say that John’s demands are for social justice and a collective responsibility. That will be a prominent theme throughout this Gospel.

There follows the sense of expectation of God once again intervening to save his people as he had done many times in the past. This is now centred on one particular saviour, the Messiah or Christ, God's anointed one. John's reply stresses the superiority of the one who is to come. The contrast between the baptisms and the power of baptism in the name of Jesus is brought out in Acts with a notable stress on the Holy Spirit. The conclusion of this Gospel is unique to Luke. He tells us that John preached good news, just as Jesus would do a little later. "Good news" comes from the same canticle as the earlier quotation from Isaiah. Finally, the story of John's fate is told briefly. The immediate point is that Herod for one does not accept the good news being preached by John. Here we are told that Herod put John in prison. John is off-stage and out of circulation as Jesus appears. 

Good news though is the conclusion of the Gospel we hear this Sunday and with that comes the call with which we began our reflection: Rejoice for the Lord is near.

1 St Matthew’s Gospel is notably important here. Matthew quotes Isaiah following the Greek which says “Behold a virgin shall conceive” whereas in our Hebrew based Bibles reads “maiden” instead in Isaiah.