Sunday, December 13, 2009

Gaudete Sunday

The crowds asked John the Baptist,
“What should we do?”
He said to them in reply,
“Whoever has two cloaks
should share with the person who has none.
And whoever has food should do likewise.”
Even tax collectors came to be baptized and they said to him,
“Teacher, what should we do?”
He answered them,
“Stop collecting more than what is prescribed.”
Soldiers also asked him,
“And what is it that we should do?”
He told them,
“Do not practice extortion,
do not falsely accuse anyone,
and be satisfied with your wages.”

Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ.
John answered them all, saying,
“I am baptizing you with water,
but one mightier than I is coming.
I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand to clear his threshing floor
and to gather the wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Exhorting them in many other ways,
he preached good news to the people.
                  Luke 3:10-18
This was today's Gospel reading, for Gaudete Sunday. "Gaudete" means "Rejoice," and as Father J.P. Earls pointed out at Mass at the Monastery, the reading can make one uneasy. The prophecy by John that the Christ will arrive with "fire" and burn the chaff with unquenchable fire is not exactly something to rejoice about. What I know is that this reading felt fresh and new to me, and is what I love most about Scripture. Look at the three-part structure of those who come to ask John's advice: the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers. And the advice they're given seems so basica nd common-sensical, it's hard to imagine that the crowd would respond so enthusiastically. Was it such a change to hear someone saying: "Hey, give to the poor, don't be corrupt, and don't be greedy" that the crowd thought he must be the messiah?

I also like the more difficult part of the passage, the prophecy. One is coming who will baptize not with water but with the Holy Spirit and fire. Who wouldn't want a promise of a messiah like that? The one for whom baptism will not be a ritual, not representative, but transforming. And I know that baptism can be transforming-- how much American literature and film has shown this, and haven't I seen it in actual churches? But for most of us, most of the time, the experience of God with us is not as visceral as this promise.

This weekend I feel like I moved into Advent. I am happy there are two weeks more until Christmas. I'm not sure what it was, but probably partly the cold, and certainly going to a store and finishing the shopping on Saturday morning with a very well-behaved crowd and Christmas music playing, and also making cookies, and two nights of dinner guests. Today the Vikings won, and we put up the Christmas tree, and I made more cookies. And there was more music. And the Sisters were dressed in pink and purple and there was wonderful music and lots of people in church. And the Scripture readings were so rich and spoke of essential things: God is coming; God is with us; Rejoice! And this, from the first reading, the prophet Zepheniah:

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.
That is right: The Lord, our God, will sing joyfully, because of us. There is a promise there of a time when we humans are such, that God is moved to sing, instead of the other way around.

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