You will know.” This was the sage advice I received from a wise mentor at a time when I was at a crossroads in making an important life decision. How much easier it would be, I thought, if someone could just tell me what was the right thing to do. I knew, however, that my mentor was right. No one else could answer the deepest questions for me about the choice to be made. She pointed me to the heart of wisdom residing within me, by which I would know what was the Spirit’s prompting.
In today’s Gospel, one group after another wants John the Baptist to help them know what they should do. They have been touched by his invitation to repent and believe the good news and have been washed free of all their sinful choices from the past. But what’s the next step? There is no one-size-fits-all response. John’s advice is tailored to each according to their circumstances. Nothing he suggests is very dramatic or extraordinary: If you have extra clothing, then share it with those who have none. If you have food, share it with those who are hungry. If you collect money, take only what you need. And if you have military might, do not abuse it. These admonitions seem obvious—they are things that “you will know” if you listen to the wisdom within.
When Zephaniah declares, “God is in your midst,” it is a reassurance that the divine guidance resides within each person and within each believing community when they allow their hearts to be turned toward the Holy One. The freedom and joy that well up from accepting God’s forgiving love is, as Isaiah says in the responsorial psalm, like drawing water at a fountain of salvation. You can return to this fountain again and again to drink deeply of its saving power. A fountain circulates living, active water, always fresh and pure, not like a cistern that collects “dead” water in a stagnant pool. At the fountain of salvation one drinks in joy, courage and strength, which overflow in our actions toward others.
The theme of joy weaves throughout the readings and the liturgy on this Gaudete (Latin for “rejoice”) Sunday. The joy is not only our own from the forgiveness and salvation that sets us free, but God also rejoices and sings, delighting in renewing us in love (Zep 3:17-18). This joy and mutual delight wants to be shared in wider and wider circles. What shall we do to make that happen? You will know.
In today’s Gospel, John the Baptist speaks about a more advanced stage of turning toward God. Beyond the baptism of repentance and its freeing joy is a further “baptism” with “the Holy Spirit and fire” that the Christ brings. Followers of Jesus will be empowered by the Spirit, who emboldens them for all manner of ministries. They will also undergo a purification process, a winnowing away of any imperfections that impede God’s love and joy.
The winnowing is not so much a process that separates out people who tend to do good and people who tend more to sin; rather it is a refining for all who turn to Christ, a burning away of all that keeps us from experiencing God’s delight and from knowing how to share that with others. This, then, is what distinguishes joy from optimism. A cheery outlook is not necessarily a Christian virtue. But a radical joy that accompanies a refinement by fire is one of the paradoxical hallmarks of our faith.