What should we do?” The crowds asked John the Baptist [Luke 3:10]. And well might they ask! After all, what question could possibly be more basic? Or more relevant? Or more universal? Isn’t that why we have advice columns, website medicine, talk show chatter, expensive psychotherapy, spiritual direction, TV’s psychic hotlines, and personal trainers, and “life coaches” – that all purport to help people answer that question?
John, being John, didn’t hesitate to answer – quite categorically in fact. Particular groups – tax collectors and soldiers, for example – each got specific answers targeted to them, tailored to the specific moral challenges connected with their professions. John obviously believed that what one does at work matters. In our society, certainly, we largely define ourselves by our work. Everybody understands what is being referred to when someone is asked “What do you do?” John was neither the first nor the last to observe that one’s work matters, what one does at work matters, how one works matters. And it’s not just one’s work that matters. When all is said and done, we define ourselves by whatever we actually do – or fail to do – in all aspects of life – at work, at home, at play, with those we love, and with those we don’t. What I do – or don’t do – demonstrates who I am, the kind of person I am choosing to be, and, in the end, determines who I will be for all eternity. As one of the 4th-century Fathers of the Church, Gregory of Nyssa [335-395], once said: “we are in a sense our own parents, and we give birth to ourselves by our own free choice of what is good.”
Of course, we now live in a world, which has in some ways turned all that upside down and encourages us to shift responsibility to everyone and everything except ourselves. That’s what makes this Gospel story so especially appropriate at this Advent midpoint. The crowd’s questions and John’s very down-to-earth practical answers, seen in the context of the Gospel message as a whole and as heard in this Advent setting, all seem to highlight just what is supposed to happen when we take the Christmas story seriously today.
Now the people, so Luke tells us, were filled with expectation [Luke 3:15]. But what were they expecting? Santa Claus? Not likely! A year-end Christmas bonus? Probably not that either! For that matter and more to the point, what are we expecting this Advent? Obviously, we’re not in expectation for Christ to be born. That already happened – a long time ago at that! We’re not play-acting here, as if living a Christian life were like some sort of perpetual Christmas pageant! The people, we’re told, all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ. John assured them that he wasn’t. With the benefit of hindsight, we know even better than his hearers. In his instructions to the tax collectors and the soldiers and everyone else, however, John was telling the people where to look. Repeating those long-ago instructions to us today, John is telling us too where to look – in what’s going on in the here and now and the day-to-day. Because what was ultimately so especially extraordinary about Jesus Christ’s becoming part of our world is precisely how his coming has transformed the seemingly ordinary in human life from being, at best, merely more of the same, into an opportunity for something altogether new.
Hence St. Paul’s powerful and challenging invitation to us to rejoice – in the famous words which give this 3rd Sunday of Advent its special name, Gaudete: Rejoice in the Lord always. I shall say it again rejoice! The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all [Philippians 4:4-6].
How does one have no anxiety at all? How can anyone do that, with all the daily worries that weigh us down, the bills that never stop coming and seem to get bigger all the time, the sense so many people have (especially in the last dozen years or so) that the economic deck is stacked against them, not to mention the big picture problems of the larger world – an epidemic of shootings in schools, and malls, and movie theaters, wars, terrorism, fiscal cliffs, climate change – which inevitably intrude even on our private problems? The fact that St. Paul made his point with such emphasis, even repeating himself, might suggest that anxiety was as much a reality for his 1st-century audience, that they too may have found rejoicing a bit of a challenge.
Of course, the rejoicing St. Paul prescribed was not some passing sentiment, but rather was rooted in the new identity they had acquired as disciples of Jesus. It’s the same for us today. It is not the ups and downs of the world around us, but who we are becoming by our choice to live a Christian life that enables us to rejoice and counteracts our inevitable anxieties.
Advent expresses the fundamental character of our Christian experience, lived (as it must be) between Christ’s 1st coming and his final advent as our judge - and defined (as it also must be) by the Risen Lord’s continued and active presence among us, in the here and now. And so, our fundamental attitude (and not just at Christmas) must be to rejoice, somehow, despite the anxiety that threatens to dominate our days. Our choice to rejoice results, St. Paul suggests, in peace – not some superficial social or political peace, but the peace of God which surpasses all understanding [Philippians 4:4-7], the peace which makes possible an authentic and morally compelling life (which John recommended and Christian discipleship requires), the peace which penetrates through our personal and social anxieties as surely as the rising sun on Christmas morning will penetrate and defeat the deep dark of the long winter night.
Homily for the 3rd Sunday of Advent, Immaculate Conception Church, Knoxville, TN, Decembere 16, 2012.