The Third Sunday of Advent [C]
Zephaniah 3:14-18 + Philippians 4:4-7 + Luke 3:10-18
December 13, 2015
“Now the people were filled with expectation, and all were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.”
Each Advent, Holy Mother Church sets before us two saints for our reflection, for us to pray to, and for us to emulate. Certainly there are other saints who also figure into the Gospel passages that we hear at Mass during Advent. Certainly there are other saints who can help us prepare for the birth of Christ. But the two saints whom the Church sets squarely before us during Advent are the Blessed Virgin Mary and Saint John the Baptist.
In the Gospel passage on this Third Sunday of Advent, we see John the Baptist front and center. But it’s an adult John the Baptist. From one perspective this is odd. We’re preparing during Advent for the birth of Christ, and yet today’s Gospel passage occurs when Jesus is an adult: thirty years old. Why aren’t we hearing today about Mary and Joseph looking for a room at the inn, or something from that timeframe?
There are two old sayings that help put this in perspective. One is: “The wood of the crib is the wood of the cross.” The other is: “The reason that Jesus was born into this world was to die to this world.” In other words, as adorable as we find reflecting on the infant Christ Child, that innocent boy was sent down from Heaven to grow up and die for us. That’s why Jesus came, and that’s what our Gospel passage today is helping us to direct our Advent towards.
As you know, the word “advent” literally means “coming”. Most of us in the Midwest don’t tend to use the word “advent” in normal speech. Apart from its religious meaning, we usually find the word “advent” only in poetry. But we need to keep that literal meaning of the word “advent” in mind. If we don’t, we’ll miss the here-and-now significance of celebrating the Seasons of Advent and Christmas. If these seasons are only about remembering—calling to mind—what happened in Bethlehem 2000 years ago, we miss all the fun.
Jesus isn’t just an historical figure. Because He’s divine, He is as alive now as He was 2000 years ago. Because He’s divine, He wants to come into your life just as He came into the world at Bethlehem. The Lord’s advent into your heart, mind and soul is immanent. This is the advent that John the Baptist helps us to prepare for through today’s Gospel passage.
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If there’s one word that sums up the Lord’s advent, it would likely be the word “expectation”. The word “expectation” connotes both waiting and a hopefulness. We might think of children during December who write out their wish lists with the expectation of a visit from Saint Nicholas. However, in English the word “expecting” is also related to the experience of pregnancy, which in the person of Mary lies at the heart of Advent.
But in today’s Gospel passage, there’s a heightened sense of expectation. Think of children during December expecting St. Nicholas’ visit, and then think of those same children on Christmas Eve, with their expectation brimming over. That’s the sense of expectation that the evangelist puts across in today’s Gospel passage, telling us that “the people” were not just “in expectation” of “the Christ”, but in fact “were filled with expectation”.
Then, however, the other shoe drops. The evangelist explains that “the people” “were asking in their hearts whether John might be the Christ.” This is bittersweet, since we know that the expectation of the people, and the hope of their hearts, is misplaced. You and I know that John is not the Christ for whom they longed.
Here, though, is a spiritual lesson for us. The evangelist wants you and I to profit from the misstep of the people who mistook John for the Christ. Even though you and I know that John the Baptist was not the Christ that “the people” in today’s Gospel passage were hoping for, you and I are not completely off the hook. More often than we like to admit, we act just like the people here. We look for Christ in all the wrong places, and even more fundamentally, we look for happiness in all the wrong places. Since Advent is a penitential season, it’s important throughout the course of Advent to consider both of these wrong-headed searches. But today, reflect on the more fundamental one.
St. Thomas Aquinas in his summary of theology explores the most common ways that man falsely seeks lasting happiness in this world. He names eight, the first four of which are specific goods: namely, wealth, honor, fame, and power. While each of these certainly can be good, and can be stepping stones to true happiness, it’s vain to search for lasting happiness in these things themselves.
For example, regarding wealth St. Thomas notes that there are two basic types. The first type is called “natural wealth”: things that are inherently valuable, because they help man to meet his basic needs. Natural wealth includes food, drink, clothing, vehicles and dwellings. It is unnatural to “look up” to these things for happiness, because these things are meant to be below man. They support him from below; they cannot inspire him from above. They are made for man; man is not made for these things. In a single word, to seek happiness in such things is base.
The other form of wealth is “artificial wealth”: its only value comes from human agreement that it has value as a medium of exchange. This comes in the forms of cash, credit, stocks, bonds, etc. Regardless of the form, money is an even lower good than the various forms of natural wealth, because the value of money derives from being able to use it to obtain things like food, clothing, and shelter. In the true order of things, money’s value is subordinate to the value of natural wealth. So if you were to picture a ladder ranking the true values of things, man would be in the center of the ladder. Below man on the ladder would be natural wealth, and then below natural wealth would be artificial wealth. Of course, fallen man in his fallen‑ness is perverse: which is to say, he turns everything upside down. He looks up to forms of wealth such as food, clothing and shelter, and strains his neck even higher to look upon what he deems to be the value of money.
Here’s another way to contrast the difference between natural and artificial forms of wealth. All you have to do is reflect on your pet dog Fido. Fido has some base understanding of the value of food and drink and shelter. Fido might also appreciate a vehicle: not only because it saves him from getting tired, but also because he loves to stick his head out the window into the breeze. It’s true that Fido might have a harder time understanding the value of clothing, although if you took him with you on vacation to Alaska in January, he probably would appreciate that doggie sweater that you got him for Christmas. But Fido cannot understand coins or bills or stock certificates having any value. He would only understand that the food, etc. that you purchase with that money has value. Fido is more sane than fallen man. Maybe that’s why the dog is man’s best friend: because he keeps us grounded in what is real.
Fido can keep us from looking up at what we should look down upon. Unfortunately, Fido cannot help us look up to what we ought to look up at. Fido can help us from having false gods, but he cannot help us find the true God. Although we only reflected on how wealth is perverted by man into a false source of happiness, much the same principles apply to reasoning why honor, fame and power also cannot bring man lasting happiness. They’re all meant to be subservient goods.
Anyhow, like Johnny Lee, fallen man spends a lot of time looking for love in all the wrong places, and in too many faces. There’s only one Face in which fallen man can find abiding happiness, and that’s in the Divine Face of Jesus.
This past Tuesday at the Vatican, on the Solemnity of the Immaculate Conception, the Holy Year of Mercy began. Hopefully you’ve read about this Year of Mercy in the Catholic Advance or in other sources of information. If you would want to learn more about the mysteries of our Catholic Faith that ground this Year of Mercy, please let me make two suggestions. The first is the document by which the Pope formally announced the Year of Mercy, back in April on Divine Mercy Sunday. Let me read you just the first paragraph:
“Jesus Christ is the face of the Father’s mercy. These words might well sum up the mystery of the Christian faith. Mercy has become living and visible in Jesus of Nazareth, reaching its culmination in him. The Father, ‘rich in mercy’ (Eph 2:4), after having revealed his name to Moses as ‘a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness’ (Ex 34:6), has never ceased to show, in various ways throughout history, his divine nature. In the ‘fullness of time’ (Gal 4:4), when everything had been arranged according to his plan of salvation, he sent his only Son into the world, born of the Virgin Mary, to reveal his love for us in a definitive way. Whoever sees Jesus sees the Father (cf. Jn 14:9). Jesus of Nazareth, by his words, his actions, and his entire person reveals the mercy of God.”
The second place you can learn more about the mysteries that ground this Year of Mercy is the second encyclical of Pope Saint John Paul II, titled Dives in Misericordia (that is, Rich in Mercy). This entire encyclical explores the mystery of Divine Mercy through the words of Sacred Scripture and the wonders of salvation history. Let me close with a passage from Dives in Misericordia (DM1):
It is “God, who is rich in mercy” whom Jesus Christ has revealed to us as Father: it is His very Son who, in Himself, has manifested Him and made Him known to us. Memorable in this regard is the moment when Philip, one of the twelve Apostles, turned to Christ and said: “Lord, show us the Father, and we shall be satisfied”; and Jesus replied: “Have I been with you so long, and yet you do not know me…? He who has seen me has seen the Father.” … “God, who is rich in mercy, … even when we were dead through our trespasses, made us alive together with Christ.”
 St. Thomas Aquinas, Summa Theologiae, I-II, 2, intro. The latter four goods that St. Thomas explores are more general: “any good of the body”, “pleasure”, “any good of the soul”, and “any created good”.
 Ibid., I-II, 2, 1.
 Pope Francis, Misericordiae Vultus [11 Apr 2015], 1.