“What should we do?” This is the question the crowds asked John the Baptist at the beginning of the Gospel for Sunday of the Third Week in Advent. When we look at the world around us and see all that needs to be done, when we look at the tumult that seems to have infiltrated our own lives, we repeat that question: “What should we do?” In this second half of the short season of Advent we may feel like time is flying and yet we still have much to do in preparation for holiday meals, family visits, travel, or getting our homes to look like Christmas is coming. We can easily get so caught up in all of these things that the question becomes “What should I do first?” or “How will I get everything done?” If we look to all the readings for this Sunday, the rather shocking answer is there: Rejoice! We might think: “We are to rejoice in response to all that needs to be done? That’s it?” As a matter of fact, the answer not only makes sense, but it puts the season and its demands into complete perspective.
If we step back for a moment leaving the swirl of stressful chaos behind, we have to look at what these four weeks are about to begin with. It is not about doing so much as it is about preparing a state of heart so that we may be before God. As the saying goes, “Jesus is the reason for the season.” Advent and all of our preparations are about the coming of the Son of God into our broken world. Liturgically, we are getting closer to radiant angels singing, awe-struck shepherds praising, and regal Magi adoring the tiny King of Kings and Lord of Lords lying in a manger. Therefore we have to keep the point of all of our preparations in mind. The reality is that we are awaiting Jesus to return someday. The Christmas meals and the gifts to be bought and wrapped are wonderful, but they are only reminders of something greater, of shared love. We must remember who it is that is the center of our preparations or we will lose our perspective and be overwhelmed. Something joyous is afoot.
The first reading of this Sunday, from the prophet Zephaniah, was written after the exile when the Jewish people were still reeling from everything that had happened to them. They were in recovery, but they had little. The prophet tells them to rejoice and sing with joy, however, because the messiah is coming. He reminds them that they have been forgiven for their massive transgressions, and therefore they needed to rejoice at the incredible mercy of God. He writes: “Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged! The Lord, your God, is in your midst, a mighty savior; he will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.” (Zeph. 3:14-18) Amazing as it is to hear, God rejoiced over them. He rejoiced because they had returned to Him and He could lavish His love on them once again. This is what God wants to offer us also: He wants us to share in His own joy, inviting us into something which is very intimate and healing.
St. Paul continues with this message in the second reading. He writes, “Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again: rejoice! Your kindness should be known to all. The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all….” (Philippians 4:4-7) St. Paul wrote this in a time of turmoil to remind the people to keep everything in perspective: Emmanuel is among us and will never leave us. He also emphasizes a connection between joy and kindness. That which we have received from God we share in gratitude. This brings us “the peace of God that surpasses all understanding.” (Phil 4:7) We hear the message that the coming of Jesus brings a peace which is not of human origin, but rather one which can only come from God. With Jesus in our midst, we need not be anxious about the future or filled with fear over the state of our world.
It is not that we should live unconcerned about our world. In fact, it is in the chaos of the world where mercy and love are most needed: Jesus came for this reason. As the Christmas carol says, He comes “with healing in His wings.” * Therefore, He needs us to cooperate with Him so that these gifts can continue to touch others who need them as we do, especially those who do not know Him at all. If we open our hearts, preparing a place for Him to be born, then He will bring us the mercy and kindness, patience and forbearance that are needed. Jesus will give us the insight to know how to proceed, giving us the wisdom to prioritize that which really is important over that which is unnecessary. But we have to take time for prayerful reflection and have the desire to make room for Him to take up residence in our hearts. Then our efforts can make a difference in the suffering of the world.
It is the Gospel which puts all of these thoughts together. (Luke 3:10-18) The crowds were coming to St. John the Baptist, longing for direction. They said: “What should we do?” They wanted to be prepared, but had no idea what to do with their lives, so filled with chaos, powerlessness, and longing. John’s response was for them to be generous and kind. “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none.” To the tax collectors, notorious sinners known for their corruption, he said to be fair. To the soldiers, known for their rigid adherence to the civil authorities, he said to stop falsely accusing others. Basically, John was telling them to do what the Scriptures have always taught: do everything with love and justice. Living with hearts attuned to the Word of God brings joy.
John knew that he was not the messiah and that his job was to point the people toward Jesus. I think that ought to be our perspective as well. We cannot do it all, nor are we expected to be someone that we are not. We can only do that to which we are called using the gifts we have been given. John models how to point others to Jesus by love and humility, and occasionally boldness in standing fast in our faith. He made it clear that Jesus would separate the good from the bad when the time came. Ours is not to judge, therefore; our job is to serve with love and act in the way we have been taught. We should be witnesses to Jesus according to our gifts, personality, and circumstances. We do not have to ‘do it all.’
So what should we do? The Scriptures for the week say this: rejoice; listen with openness; give and share what you can; love; forgive; act with justice, care, mercy, kindness, humility, and patience. We have been given an amazing gift in the coming of Jesus who comes as Wonder-Counselor, God-Hero, Father-Forever, and Prince of Peace. It is He for whom we wait and it is He who puts all things into perspective. The flurry of activity in putting a meal together, giving hospitality to our guests, getting gifts organized, making houses festive, visiting friends and relatives, and getting work done only makes sense when it is oriented toward Jesus’ coming. This is because in doing so we are welcoming the most important Guest of all. In getting our chores accomplished we should remember that all those things we 'have to do' are a gift, not a burden. Many do not have the luxury of having things to do because they are poor, homeless, ill, or in prison. They cannot even think of gifts to give or meals to cook because they have nothing. The poor must long to have the very ‘burdens’ about which we complain! Therefore, the very things which weigh us down are cause for rejoicing, not bemoaning. Therefore, rejoice in gratitude that you have a to-do list. And then share that gratitude with those who are suffering in some way or who do not have anything, those who are as poor as Jesus was when He entered the world. The gift of our sharing and our mercy is a gift of gratitude to the One who comes as a helpless, poor Baby on a cold night in winter.
What should we do? Rejoice in the many gifts of love, mercy, and goodness that we have because of the gift of our God. Rejoice in those whom we love and in those who love us. Rejoice in God who loves us so much that He bent low to become one of us. Rejoice because Jesus is very near. And rejoice because He rejoices in you.
May we have joy and peace as we proceed through the remainder of Advent! May we have hospitality of heart, sharing the joy and mercy of Jesus with those who do not know Him as we do! May we have the gift of perspective, keeping our eyes on the stable so we are not overpowered by the secularization of the season! May we share what we have, remembering that the poor are like the parents of Jesus who were homeless, searching for a place to come out of the cold so Jesus could be born! And may we rejoice in the great gift of love, the Son of Righteousness and Justice, whom we await! Let us continue to meet in the Heart of our Rejoicing Savior! Marana tha! Peace!
©Michele L. Catanese
*Hark The Herald Angels Sing, verse 3. This reference comes from Malachi 3:20.
The top photo is one of mine, taken in Natchitoches, Louisiana.
After the Advent 3 candles is a photo I took of my Nativity set at home. While it may look a little odd for Mary and Joseph to be looking at an empty manger, the symbolism of waiting and longing is what this is about. He is coming soon!
Next is an icon by Fr. William Hart McNichols called St. John the Forerunner Also the Baptist. It can be found at http://fineartamerica.com/featured/st-john-the-forerunner-also-the-baptist-082-william-hart-mcnichols.html
The last two paintings are the work of Bl. Fra Angelico, who is one of my favorite artists of all time.
- The first of the two is The Visitation of Mary and Elizabeth. I chose this because it embodies everything about reaching out in humble service to one in need who in this case happens to be a distant relative. Mary had just heard that she would bear the Son of God and had become pregnant with Him and yet her first thoughts are not of herself, but of the cousin the angel said was with child. Mary has things in right perspective and therefore they both rejoice! http://www.wikiart.org/en/fra-angelico/visitation-1434
- The second painting is an inset of The Annunciation. It is a 'close-up' of the Archangel Gabriel as he announces to Mary that she will be overshadowed by the Holy Spirit and become the Mother of God. Gabriel's face radiates with joy; if you look closely you can see the hint of a smile and the joy in his eyes. http://www.scholastic.com/browse/article.jsp?id=3754342
Finally a note to all my Facebook friends, those who follow my blog using that medium: Facebook is very random about who sees what and for how long. I truly do not understand the way it 'decides.' Therefore, if you do not see my post announcement, simply go to either my Heart Speaks to Heart Facebook page to find it or go straight to my website: www.catanesesd.com and click on the "Michele's Blog" tab. If you follow me or my Heart Speaks to Heart page on Facebook you ought to receive it; or if you share the posts, it is supposed to make note of this and figure out that you are a regular reader. No matter what you do, I tend to post sometime on a Monday every week so if all else fails, check with me on Mondays. I am so grateful for your support and rejoice at your kindness! :)
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