Third Sunday of Advent
December 12, 2021
Homily by Fr. John De Celles
St. Raymond of Peñafort Catholic Church
Nowadays we hear the saying “follow the science” a lot.
People seeking scientific answers to problems.
There is a tendency in the Church today to apply this to the study of the Scriptures.
Even though it is very important to use scientific methods
to better understand the historical meaning
of a particular text or word or situation in Scripture,
that has a nuance that careful study might show us,
we should never fail to listen with the ear of a poet,
and with a heart filled with the faith of the Church.
This is very much the case with today’s first reading from the prophet Zephaniah.
In this text the prophet says:
“Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!…. Be glad and exult with all your heart,
O daughter Jerusalem!… the LORD, is in your midst.”
To the strictly scientific ear, Zion and Jerusalem represent the people of Israel:
Jerusalem is the capital of Israel,
and Zion is the mountain that Jerusalem is on.
But those with a sense of poetry and the fullness of the faith,
like the Fathers and Doctors of the Church,
hear something much more.
First when they hear “Daughter Zion” they think not only of “Israel,”
but also of “the Church.”
And then, on a deeper level,
they recall the words the archangel Gabriel spoke
to a young girl in Nazareth named Mary:
“Hail” or “Rejoice,” “full of grace, the Lord is with you,
blessed art thou among women!”
–and also the words that that same Virgin Mary
later spoke to her cousin Elizabeth:
“my soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord,
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.”
Zephaniah is speaking not only to Israel and the Church,
but particularly to the Blessed Virgin Mary.
As St. Ambrose taught in the 4th century,
along with so many of the other early Fathers of the Church,
Mary is the “type” or “archetype” and “outstanding model” of the Church.
She is the great exemplar or the great teacher of the Church:
and so she is the one who can most sublimely teach us how to
“rejoice in the Lord always.”
Who rejoices more at the news of the coming of the Lord than the Blessed Mother?
Of whom else can it be said that for nine months
the Lord was not only “in your midst”,
but physically in your very body?
In the months and weeks before the birth of Christ Mary was full of joy:
–not only because she was pregnant with her son,
whom she knew would be healthy and strong
–and a King!,
–but also because she knew that it was the Lord,
whom she loved above all things and persons,
who was truly “in her midst”:
“the Lord was with her,” in her womb.
Nine months and MORE–filled with perfect joy in the Lord.
And as Mary is the archetype of the Church,
the same can be said for the Church today.
Today we can feel the Church is filled with the pregnant expectation of the coming of the Lord –an expectation filled with joy
–and yet an expectation not yet fulfilled.
Today the Church is beaming like a pregnant woman in her 8th month,
the light of Christ beginning to shine
through the normal dark violet of Advent
changing it for a moment into a bright Rose color
–like the unblemished, radiant cheeks of the Expectant Virgin.
Zephaniah tells Mary and the Church: “Rejoice!,”
and in today’s second reading St. Paul echoes the theme:
“Rejoice in the Lord always! again I say rejoice!”
But while the first two readings are full of joy and excitement,
the Gospel reading seems to take a different tack.
Instead of the glad tidings of “sing joyfully …as one sings at festivals!”,
we find the stark character of John the Baptist,
the one who preaches not about joy and singing,
but about repentance and preparing.
A John the Baptist confronted by the crowd that wants to know how to prepare
–“what should we do?”
This seems like two very different themes: rejoicing and preparation.
But they’re not really: before there is rejoicing in the Lord
there must be preparation for Him.
Mary was prepared for the coming of Christ from the moment of her conception
–as we celebrated just last Wednesday
on the Feast of the Immaculate Conception,
the beginning of her preparation for the birth of Jesus.
And because Mary is completely and perfectly prepared by God–
–she can truly rejoice at all times and with her entire spirit.
For those who are prepared–like Mary—
the coming of the Lord is nothing but good news
and the response is rejoicing.
And so the Gospel today tells us that “the people were filled with expectation”
after St. John told them how to prepare, after he answered their question:
” what should we do?”
They were full of excitement and joy because, as the Gospel says:
“he preached the good news to the people.”
But what was the “good news” he preached?
Today’s Gospel tells us that St. John’s good news
was that those who were prepared and filled with the Fire of the Holy Spirit
would be gathered like wheat into the Lord’s barn.
But on the other hand, it goes on to tell us that part of the good news
included some bad news:
the ones who don’t prepare won’t be able to rejoice:
they’ll be like the chaff left over from the wheat, and
“will be burned in the unquenchable fire.”
The good news is that with Christ in our midst
there is only room for the Fire of the Holy Spirit
–a fire that consumes even as it purifies,
the fire of burning love and rejoicing.
But the bad news is that without preparing for the coming of Christ there is only
the unquenchable fire of despair.
There is no true joy when Christ is not in our midst,
and Christ cannot be in our midst when we are in the midst of sin.
So while sin may bring us temporary pleasure and satisfaction,
there can be no joy in sin
—in the end, there can only be despair and anxiety.
And so while St. John preaches a gospel of repentance and preparation,
St. Paul can also exhort us to “Have no anxiety at all.”
That’s if we’re prepared.
But how do we prepare?
After all we’re not immaculately conceived like Mary was.
St. John tells the people of his day– and the people of our day
— that we don’t have to be immaculately conceived
like the Blessed Mother,
or go into the desert and live on locusts like he did:
What we have to do is recognize Christ in our midst
and by His grace and the fire of the Holy Spirit
live the life He’s given us in the way He has called us to.
To those who have more than enough, He says share with those who have nothing.
He instructs the tax collectors and the soldiers,
not to stop collecting taxes and soldiering,
but to be fair and not greedy, to tell the truth and not be cruel or unjust.
How many are there in Fairfax and Springfield and Lorton
who have more than enough?
And how many in this building right now?
How many of us fall into selfishness and greed, gossip and lies,
cruelty and injustice
But there is no joy in sin–there is only despair and anxiety.
St. John tells us, prepare!
But be prepared as Mary was….. prepared in order that you can rejoice!
As we continue this season of Advent,
full of anticipation of the coming of Our Savior,
let us imitate “daughter Zion”–the Blessed Virgin Mary.
Let us ask God to prepare us
so that we may echo the words of our Blessed Mother,
and “rejoice in God [our] Savior!”
Not only rejoicing at Christmas, but “Rejoice[ing] in the Lord always!”
Let us pray that when He comes He’ll find us worthy of the good news
–filled with the joyful Fire of the Holy Spirit,
and not to be left to be consumed by the fire of despair.
Let us pray that the word of God handed down through the prophet may apply not only to Israel, and to Mary, but also to the Church
–and to each of us, her members:
“Shout for joy, O daughter Zion…
Be glad and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem!”