Third Sunday of Advent C
Isaiah 12:2-6 (Responsorial Psalm)
A Prophet All Ablaze
Today’s gospel begins rather abruptly. John the Baptist has been preaching a message of repentance to the multitudes. He is no ordinary preacher. John burns; he is all aflame with the fire of the Word of God. He aims his words like blazing arrows to pierce the most hardened hearts. John is not intimidated by his hearers. He is not diplomatic. The Baptist is not impressed by the rich and the powerful. He doesn’t seek to please the influential, nor to flatter the pious. He doesn’t court the favour of the establishment.
The Sword of the Word
When it comes to sin, John is absolutely lucid; he knows well just how twisted and hardened the human heart can become. Jeremiah had said it before him: “The heart is deceitful above all things, and desperately corrupt; who can understand it?” (Jer 17:9). John knows only one remedy for the corruption and deceit of the human heart: the Word of God, “living and active, sharper than any two-edged sword, piercing to the division of soul and spirit, of joints and marrow, and discerning the intentions of the heart” (Heb 4:12).
The Malignant Growths of Sin
To be wounded by the Word is the first stage of healing. Not only is the Word blazing arrow and two-edged sword; it is a scalpel as well. The Word is the scalpel by which the Holy Spirit removes from our hearts the malignant growths of sin.
There are some who come to the sacred liturgy or go to lectio divina armed against the Word, wearing helmets and clutching shields. It is, in fact, possible to go through the motions of worship clothed in an invisible armour protected by the hard shells of routine piety, self-sufficiency, and habitual inattention to the proclamation of the Word. It is even possible to listen to the Word of God, holding all the while a shield in front of our hearts, lest we be struck by the Word, and wounded.
Take off your armour! Shed the shell which protects you from blazing arrow and fiery dart! Down with your shields! Bare your soul to the Word of God! Expose your heart to the Spirit of Truth! Risk being wounded, for unless we are wounded there is no healing for us. The ancients call this wounding of the heart by the cutting sword of the Word the grace of compunction. Compunction is what happens when the heart is pierced by the Word of God, and the first sign of compunction is the willingness to change.
Laying the Axe to the Roots of Sin
This is why today’s gospel begins with a series of questions. “And the multitudes asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ Tax collectors also came to be baptized, and said to him, ‘Teacher, what shall we do?’ Soldiers also asked him, ‘And we, what shall we do?’” (Lk 3:10-14). John answers the first group with an imperative: “He who has two coats, let him share with him who has none; and he who has food, let him do likewise” (Lk 3:11). To the tax collectors he says: “Collect no more than is appointed you” (Lk 3:13). To the soldiers: “Rob no one by violence or by false accusation, and be content with your wages” (Lk 3:14). John is attacking the social corruption that is rooted in personal sin. With wide and mighty strokes the Forerunner lays the axe of the Word to the roots of selfishness, insensitivity, greed, falsehood, avarice and the abuse of power.
What are we to conclude from this? If our participation in Holy Mass, and in the Divine Office four, five, six, or seven times a day does not force us to ask the question of the multitudes, the tax collectors and the soldiers, we have not yet heard the Word of God. Rather we have shielded ourselves from it. Like Adam and Eve in the garden, hearing the footsteps of God approaching, we have hid from the sound of His voice (cf. Gen 3:8).
The Innermost Parts Made Clean
How can we evaluate our participation in the Liturgy of the Word? The test is a simple one. If the Word of God has left you wounded, your participation in the liturgy has not been in vain. If you experience the grace of compunction, then know for certain that you have been touched by God. If the Word leaves you with a great, gaping hole in the heart, so much the better! We read in the book of Proverbs: “Blows that wound cleanse away evil; strokes make clean the innermost parts” (Pr 20:30).
Cut to the Heart
If John’s message of repentance is at once wounding and healing, how much more powerfully are we wounded and healed by the Gospel of Jesus Christ! Let us, for a moment, leave the banks of the Jordan for the city of Jerusalem. It is Pentecost morning. The Holy Spirit has descended mightily in violent winds and tongues of fire. Peter is a man utterly transformed. He preaches the Gospel in the fire of the Holy Spirit, announcing Jesus, the crucified, as Lord and Christ. What do we read in Acts 2:37 concerning the reaction of the crowds to Peter’s message? “Now when they heard this they were cut to the heart — the grace of compunction again — and said to Peter and the rest of the apostles, ‘Brethren, what shall we do?’” This is the same question addressed by the multitude to John the Baptist on the banks of the Jordan. And Peter said to them, “Repent, and be baptized every one of you in the name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of your sins; and you shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit” (Ac 2:37-38). Peter says: “You shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit,” the same Holy Spirit who descended upon us in wind and in tongues of fire! This word of Saint Peter must be connected to the word of John the Baptist in the gospel: “He who is mightier than I is coming. . . He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire” (Lk 3:16).
The Gift of the Holy Spirit
The preaching of John the Baptist is a plow ripping open the crusty soil of sinful hearts. He draws long furrows in the hearts of his hearers. He sows in them the seeds of justice, integrity and truth. Saint Peter also calls to repentance; his word however is invested with a new and mysterious power. He calls to baptism in the Name of Jesus Christ for the forgiveness of sins. What does this mean? It means total immersion in the mystery of Christ’s death and resurrection. It means the immersion of all our wounds in the healing power of His Blood. And, as if that were not enough, Saint Peter adds even more. “You shall receive the gift of the Holy Spirit. For the promise is to you and to your children and to all that are far off, everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Ac 2:38-39).
To receive the gift of the Holy Spirit is to enter in the circle of divine intimacy, into the life of God. The Holy Spirit is the life of the Son in us, by whom we are drawn to the Father, and in whom we utter the astonished cry of recognition, “Abba!” The Holy Spirit enables us to face the Father with the Son and experience, together with the Son, the ineffable joy of being loved by the Father.
Fire Upon the Earth
John the Baptist foretold the outpouring of the Gift of God: baptism in the Holy Spirit and in fire (cf. Lk 2:16). Saint Peter summons us to lay claim to the Gift, for “the promise is to everyone whom the Lord our God calls to him” (Ac 2:40). Christ confers the gift, setting ablaze all who receive it. “I have come to cast fire upon the earth and would that it were already kindled” (Lk 12:49)!
It is a risky thing to sing psalms, listen to readings, and make prayers. It is even more dangerous to be charged with preaching the Word. Paul enjoined Timothy to “preach the word, be urgent in season and out of season, convince, rebuke, and exhort, be unfailing in patience and in teaching” (2 Tim 4:1-2). The preacher of the Word is entrusted with a mighty sword. Unlike an ordinary swordsman, in the case of the preacher, it is the sword who wields the man and not the man, the sword! And the sword of the Word passes through the church leaving many wounded. The Word in the mouth of John the Baptist! The Word in the mouth of Peter! The Word proclaimed, sung and heard in this little monastic church, in this Gaudete Sunday Mass! But the wounds inflicted by the Word are the very openings through which the Holy Spirit penetrates into the secret places of the heart.
Once the Holy Spirit has entered we begin to experience a deep and quiet joy unlike any other joy. The certainty of being loved by God, even as Jesus, the Eternal Son, is loved by the Father! “These things I have spoken to you, says Jesus, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (Jn 15:11).
It is this that makes Saint Paul say: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, Rejoice” (Phil 4:4). It is this that makes us want to sing and shout for joy. “Great in our midst is the Holy One of Israel” (Is 12:6). This is the meaning of Zephaniah’s jubilant prophecy: “He will exult with joy over you, He will renew you by His love; He will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival” (Zeph 3:17). If you have been wounded by the fiery dart of the Word, then you must want to ask me, as the multitudes asked the Baptist, and the people of Jerusalem, Saint Peter: “What about me? What am I to do?”
Believe in Love
My answer is this: allow the Father to love you even as He loves the Son. Believe in love. Surrender. Allow the Father to exult with joy over you. Allow him to renew you by His love. Allow him to dance with shouts of joy over you as on a day of festival. For the day of festival has come. It is here now, and it is coming soon. The festival of the Father’s love is the Most Holy Eucharist, plunging us again into the death and resurrection of Christ, inebriating us with the sober sweetness of the Holy Spirit.
The Threshold of Joy
This is why joy has the final word, not only on this Gaudete Sunday, but every Sunday and every time we come together to enter the festival. Repentance is but the threshold of joy, an indescribable joy, a heavenly joy, the very joy that we taste in the Body of Christ broken for us and given for us to eat, the very joy that moistens our lips and gladdens our hearts when we drink of the Chalice of His Blood: His joy in us and our joy made complete (cf. Jn 15:11). Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!