A. The Bible as Guide in Life and Liturgy (Sunday Readings) A.  Dialogue: Rejoice Greatly. The Lord is Near

First Reading (Zephaniah 3:14-18).

This reading is best appreciated when read against its original background in the book of Zephaniah. The collection of oracles in the book of Zephaniah opens with a proclamation of doom on Judah for its religious syncretism (worshipping other gods as well as the God of Israel). The prophet then extends the divine judgment to other nations who are also guilty, returning to a condemnation of the officials of Jerusalem and Judah, the judges, prophets and priests, these latter for neglect of the sacred and of instruction of the people in God’s law. But God will purify Jerusalem, removing the proud and haughty and leaving in her midst a people humble and lowly, who seek refuge in his name. Sin, divine threats and punishment are part of human existence, but do not take from God’s plan for humanity and his chosen people. What God’s plans are for his people are expressed in a psalm that ends Zephaniah’s work and is the substance of today’s reading. The prophet’s words of hope and comfort are addressed to Jerusalem, in biblical style called the daughter of Zion. It is presumed that the new people will be humble and lowly, seeking refuge in the Lord. Past sins and failings, no matter how great or embarrassing, should not discourage. God’s message is that we move forward from any sinful past. Sins are forgiven. A central theme in all this is joy, rejoicing. The Lord is in the midst of his people, the Lord in all his transforming power, to give joy and encouragement. Not only should his people rejoice but they should recall that the Lord their God exults, rejoices, over them as on a festival day. To believe in the presence of a forgiving and empowering God should be cause for joy.

Responsorial Psalm (Isaiah 12:2-6).

Normally the text chosen for a Responsorial Psalm is one of the 150 psalms. Today’s text is from a prophetic book (Isaiah), but is nonetheless a psalm. In tone and background it is very similar to the first reading today. The first section of the Book of Isaiah is chapters 1-12. Isaiah, like Zephaniah, had severely criticized Judah and Jerusalem, threatening divine punishment. But a future Davidic king and a better future are promised in chapters 9-11. In words reminiscent of Israel’s song of redemption at the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 15:2), the speaker in this psalm or psalms (who is probably the redeemed community), gives thanks for the salvation that God has brought (despite past sins). Joy is a central theme. With joy God’s renewed people will draw water from the wells of salvation,, from the living God, the fountain of living water (see Jeremiah 2:13). God is with them, in their midst, so they should shout and sing for joy.

Second Reading (Philippians 4:4-7).

This letter was written by Paul while in prison, and in danger of death. The entire letter is rightly regarded as breathing Paul’s radiant joy and happiness in Christ. Christian joy for him was a gift of the Holy Spirit, as he had written to the Thessalonians, evangelized shortly after the neighbouring Philippians. He gladly reminds the Thessalonians that “in spite of persecutions you received the word (of the Gospel) with joy inspired by the Holy Spirit” (1 Thessalonians 1:6). The joy stems from the gift of faith, of the new age. It models that of Christ himself, who rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and thanked the Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that he had hidden the mysteries of the kingdom from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes (Luke 10:21). This Christian happiness and joy should radiate from believers; their epieikeia (a Greek word with a number of connotations), their forbearance, their tolerance, their gentleness, should be visible to all. The basis for this is that “the Lord is near”, not in the sense of the second coming but his presence in power, giving a peace and a joy that is beyond all understanding, a presence that comes alive through prayer. The Gospel (Luke 3:10-18). We are in the period of Advent, waiting for Christ’s coming, and the gospel reading for each of the Second and Third Sundays presents the person of John the Precursor, who first made Jesus’ coming known. John preached repentance. In today’s reading he specifies for various persons who came to him what they should do to make their repentance real.

B. The Bible in Dialogue with Questions of the Day

Rejoice Greatly. The Lord is Near

Today’s liturgy, Gaudete¸ “Rejoice” Sunday, is all about the joy and happiness that is intended to characterize Christian life. Christians should radiate joy, happiness, epikeikeia, gentleness, forbearance, understanding, based on the presence of God, of Christ, of the Holy Spirit, the Holy Spirit that gives conviction of Christ’s victory and presence. Christian life is witness to all this. Just as, for Catholics, the Sanctuary Lamp is witness to the presence of Christ in the Eucharist, so is Christian life a sanctuary lamp to God’s presence, to God’s kingdom, on earth. Christian life, Christian joy, is witness that the Lord is near, that in Christ salvation, redemption, has come as God has willed it.

From the point of view of dialogue with questions of the day we may note that the terms divine presence and salvation are matters that a good section of our modern world rejects. There are those who seek a salvation for humanity without God or organized religion, in particular without the Catholic Church. The sanctuary lamp can irritate. Salvation without organized religion is a theme in the thought of the Russian writer Dostoyevsky, and nearer home in that of Tom Murphy. The Internet Wikipedia entry on Tome Murphy notes that recurring themes in his writings include the search for redemption and hope in a world apparently deserted by God and filled with suffering. Although steeped in the culture and mythology of Ireland, Murphy’s work does not trade on familiar clichés of Irish identity, dealing instead with Dostoyevskian themes of violence, nihilism and despair while never losing sight of the presence of laughter, humour and the possibilities of love and transcendence. It further notes the Murphy’s play The Sanctuary Lamp explores major themes of redemption, love, guilt, spirituality and the existence – or non-existence – of God. In common with much of Murphy’s work the play deals with the battle against nihilism and finds a form of redemption and hope in mankind’s ability to show compassion, love and find an individual spirituality. The Lamp itself becomes an image of the light of the human soul unattached to dogma or religion.

It is worth recalling in this context an address of Pope Benedict to pilgrims at St Peter’s, Rome, on the Third Sunday of Advent 2007. He said: “The mystery of Bethlehem reveals to us God-with-us, the God close to us and not merely in the spatial and temporal sense; he is close to us because he has, as it were, ‘espoused’ our humanity; he has taken our condition upon himself, choosing to be like us in all things save sin in order to make us become like him. Christian joy thus springs from this certainty: God is close, he is with me, he is with us, in joy and in sorrow, in sickness and in health, as a friend and faithful spouse. And this joy endures, even in trials, in suffering itself. It does not remain only on the surface; it dwells in the depths of the person who entrusts himself to God and trusts in him. Some people ask: but is this joy still possible today? Men and women of every age and social condition, happy to dedicate their existence to others, give us the answer with their lives!” He instances the example of Bl. Teresa of Calcutta, citing her words; “Being happy with God means loving like him, helping like him, giving like him, serving like him”. The Pope then concludes: “Yes, joy enters the hearts of those who put themselves at the service of the lowly and poor. God abides in those who love like this and their souls rejoice. If, instead, people make an idol of happiness, they lose their way and it is truly hard for them to find the joy of which Jesus speaks. Unfortunately, this is what is proposed by cultures that replace God by individual happiness, mindsets that find their emblematic effect in seeking pleasure at all costs, in spreading drug use as an escape, a refuge in artificial paradises that later prove to be entirely deceptive”.

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