As the feast of Christ’s birth draws closer, this third Sunday of Advent is traditionally known as Gaudete or Rejoice Sunday. And the encouragement to rejoice or be happy for what Jesus has achieved for us opens the Second Reading from St Paul and underlines this message.
Nevertheless, and for the second Sunday running, it is the austere person of John the Baptist who confronts us in the Gospel. He was the cousin of Jesus and an itinerant preacher who hailed from Jericho what we know today as the West Bank of Palestine. There was a heightened expectancy at the time that the arrival of the Messiah was imminent. John’s followers believed that he might be the Messiah but that came to nothing when he was arrested and beheaded in prison. It was then that Jesus emerged from the north of the country to take over John’s role.
Later Christians came to see that John fulfilled the role of preparing people to receive the Messiah and this is how St Luke presents John in today’s Gospel.
Of all the different groups who came into contact with John, St Luke mentions only three (Luke 3:10-18).
The first group is described as ‘all the people’, that is the general population. When they asked John ‘must we do?’, he said they should share their food and clothing with those who had little. In other words, don’t be greedy or selfish – respond generously to the needs of the people around you.
The second group to approach John was tax collectors. They were despised by the general population for collaborating with the Roman occupying power by collecting taxes from their fellow Jews. The Romans turned a blind eye to them collecting more than was due and lining their own pockets. John’s response to them was interesting – he didn’t say they should quit their jobs but asked them to “exact no more than your rate” – in other words, don’t rip off people, be fair and just.
The third group to approach John was Jews who served as soldiers for Herod, the Jewish puppet king installed by the Romans. They too were despised for enforcing the will of Rome. John’s message to them was not to abandon their livelihoods but to be just in their dealings with people – no intimidation and extortion, no blackmail; be content with your pay, or rations and provisions.
In summary John’s message of preparation was a strong social one: whatever your profession, livelihood or status, you prepare for Christ’s coming by being fair and just in your dealings with others, and responding generously to those who are in need.
For many people this can be a busy or even chaotic time of year, with so much to do and less and less time to do it. So they may be struggling to find the time to make some form of spiritual preparation for the coming of Christ at Christmas. If you have children or other dependents, or have a hectic home or work schedule, this is understandable. Nevertheless, John challenges us to have a Christmas that is not hollow but benefits others as it benefits ourselves and our families.
So he calls on us as Jesus also did: not to be mean, selfish or greedy; not to be self-absorbed or preoccupied with our own problems; to be outgoing and think of others and their needs, not just our own; and wherever we become aware of poor and vulnerable people, to do the best we can to help them according to our circumstances.
An even greater challenge comes to us from St Paul in the Second Reading. He says that if we surrender our anxieties, fears and worries to God, and trust in God’s providence for all our needs and challenges, we will have the ‘peace of God which is so much greater than we can understand’. Now isn’t that the one gift we’d all love to have this Christmas?
Holy Name, Jesmond
12 December 2021