We are at the midpoint of Advent, the Sunday known as Gaudete, the Sunday for rejoicing. It was so designated at a time when Advent was considered a penitential preparation for Christmas. Since penance is no longer the emphasis, the Sunday seems to have lost some of its initial purpose. But the rejoicing that it advocates continues to be in line with the season.
Advent is a time for joy, not primarily because we are anticipating the anniversary of the birth of Jesus, but because God is already in our midst. That is what the prophet Zephaniah claims, and he makes that claim twice. He is speaking to a people who have been burdened with war and destruction and displacement. Their lives have been assaulted and their hopes have been dashed. In the face of this the prophet directs them to “Shout for joy... Sing joyfully.... Be glad and exult.” How can they possibly respond in this way?
The prophet assures them that with God in their midst, they can indeed move forward into a new life. In God’s presence they have nothing further to fear. No longer do they stand under judgment, for they will be renewed in God’s love. Are these empty promises? Can this really come to pass? It was up to Israel to decide whether they would turn to God and trust in the promises made to them or continue on the path they had set for themselves.
Unfortunately, our world is not terribly different from theirs. It too is burdened with war and destruction and displacement; lives have been assaulted and hopes have been dashed. We are probably as skeptical about peace and restoration as were the ancient Israelites—perhaps even more. However, this skepticism need not prevent us from trusting that God will encircle us with love and will grant us the peace we so desperately seek.
Paul also calls us to rejoice. In fact, he says that we should rejoice always, because the Lord is near. There is no contradiction here regarding God’s presence. Paul did not think that Christ is absent from our midst. Rather, he was speaking of Christ’s final manifestation in glory. It is that time that is near; hence there is reason for rejoicing. But notice what else he says. In anticipation of that time of fulfillment, he admonishes us: “Your kindness should be known to all.” Though peace and restoration are given to us by God, they do not simply drop down from heaven. We are involved in their fashioning. Still, we do not create this renewed world; God does. Furthermore, it is not given to us as a reward for our labors; it is fashioned within and through the very efforts we make.
“What shall we do?” This is the very question the crowds asked John the Baptist. We might expect this ascetic to make radical demands: Leave everything and join me in the desert; adopt a life of fasting and penance. But John does not make such demands. Instead, he calls people to fidelity in the very circumstances of their lives: Those who have more than they need, share with those who have less; tax collectors, be honest; soldiers, do not take advantage of the vulnerable; parents, cherish your children; spouses, be faithful; neighbors, live in peace.
John models an attitude of mind and heart that is needed in today’s world. Though he was eccentric, he was very popular. People from every walk of life thronged to him. While some no doubt came out of curiosity, others were clearly motivated by religious fervor. They sought his advice about the direction their lives should take. John could have taken great pride in his reputation and in the influence that this probably afforded him, but he did not. Quite the contrary. He knew who he was, and he knew who he was not. He did not use his influence to enhance his prestige. He was an honest man, a man of humility.
We cannot fail to wonder how much of the world’s sorry state is not the consequence of arrogance—arrogance stemming from military prowess, or economic prosperity, or educational superiority. People and nations less fortunate are sometimes minimized or treated as inferiors. Resentment turns to hatred, and hatred breeds violence. But this does not have to be the case. It is precisely this world filled with resentment and hatred and violence that can be transformed. It is precisely in and through our efforts to rid our world of such a scourge that the new world is fashioned, the reign of God brought forth.
Are these empty promises? Can this really come to pass? It is now up to us to decide whether we will turn to God and trust in the promises made to us, or continue on the path we have set for ourselves. God is in our midst. Rejoice!