Advent III / C / 2108 / Gaudete!
Msgr. Patrick S. Brennan
This third Sunday of Advent is called "Gaudete" Sunday, Rejoice Sunday, from the first word of the entrance antiphon for the Mass: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I say rejoice!" The same words are repeated in our second reading today from St. Paul’s letter to the Philippians. It’s as if the joy of Christmas has slipped into this third Sunday—it simply cannot be contained!
The readings today reflect the joy we celebrate—Advent readings at their best! The first reading is from the prophet Zephaniah—one of the minor prophets, we call them—not because their message is minor or that they are not important, but because their book in the Bible is very short.
So who is Zephaniah? The prophet Zephaniah was an older contemporary of the Prophet Jeremiah. Zephaniah lived during the reign of one of Israel’s good kings, Josiah, in the seventh century before Christ—just before the Babylonian exile.
Like all the prophets, there is a fair amount of doom and gloom in the Book of Zephaniah. Why? Because Israel had turned away from God—a kingdom can expect destruction if it turns away from the Lord. At the time, Israel had a good king, Josiah, but there was corruption all around him. The temple was corrupt, and the morals of the people were corrupt. Zephaniah wrote and preached that "winter is coming," so to speak—doom and gloom on the horizon. Listen to some of his words:
Hark, the day of the Lord!
A day of wrath is that day,
a day of anguish and distress;
A day of destruction and desolation,
a day of darkness and gloom.
I will pour out their blood like dust,
and their brains like dung.
Strong words! When we turn from the Lord, disaster awaits us.
But here’s the point . . . and the point of Advent itself: while doom and destruction and chastisement are real, THEY DO NOT HAVE THE LAST WORD! This pattern is basic to the Bible, and basic to our spiritual lives. Sin and death will not prevail. The prophets always look ahead—prophecy—to that great day of victory and vindication.
Look at our first reading today: "Shout for joy, O daughter Zion! Be glad and exult. The Lord has removed the judgment against you . . . you have no further misfortune to fear. Be not discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior—he will renew you in his love."
Zephaniah expresses Israel’s hope for the future—but this hope would not come immediately. Israel would continue to undergo hardship for centuries . . . until the fullness of time, when, in the small town of Bethlehem, Jesus is born. The Messiah. The fulfillment of all the prophecies.
But typical of the Scriptures, the pattern of the prophets is repeated:
Destruction first, then vindication. First death, then life. The crucifixion of Jesus first. Then, to the astonishment of the disciples, Resurrection. Victory!
How did the early Church come to understand this?
The answer is St. Paul, our first great theologian. St. Paul new the biblical pattern: doom and gloom first, then vindication. First sadness, then joy. In the dying and the rising of Jesus, the Book of Zephaniah is fulfilled.
And so, with St. Paul in our second reading, we say, "Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice!" Our God has come to save us.