||The Sánchez Archives
THIRD SUNDAY OF
Patricia Datchuck Sánchez
The Blessedness of the Banal
Like young and ardent lovers whose mutual caring and admiration leads each to regard no sacrifice as too costly or any request as unfulfillable, so also are converts to the faith. Whether they be new or veteran converts, returning yet again to the Lord, their enthusiasm is palpable. Fresh from their encounter with the truth and thus having accepted to be transformed and redirected by it, the zeal of these neophytes is comparable to a wellspring waiting to be tapped or a cache of Texas crude gushing upward unrestrained through the earths surface. Because they are eager and willing to place their time, talent and treasure at the service of the community, converts represent a most valuable resource. For its part, the community becomes responsible for channeling but not stifling, for directing but not squelching, paid for encouraging but not abusing the gifts with which it has been blessed. To aid the gathered assembly in this regard, todays readings speak a wise message of counsel and guidance.
From the prophet Zepahniah (first reading), perennial, advent converts learn that the God who calls each of us to conversion remains in our midst, continually renewing, with gladness and love, all who turn toward the truth. Paul (second reading) also calls the converted to rejoice in the nearness of God who hears prayers and whose peace safeguards our hearts and minds. In todays Lucan gospel, John the Baptizer teaches a lesson that keeps the enthusiasm of the convert practical and in touch with the reality of the human experience.
In the course of his preaching near the Jordan, John attracted a variety of diverse converts. Ordinary people moved by his message and wishing to respond to it asked What ought we to do? Tax collectors, similarly motivated, said What are we to do? Soldiers, also, wanted to know how they could translate their willingness to change into action, What about us?
If their frank and eager questions are any indication of their zeal, then those who were drawn by Johns message would probably have agreed to anything he asked of them. But John did not issue Herculean challenges; he simply directed the energies and generosity of his questioners toward the routine and workaday circumstances of their everyday lives. God does not require the extraordinary or bizarre; rather, blessedness is to be found in the ordinary and even in the banal.
If Johns message were to be contemporized, we can almost hear him telling spouses to express the sincerity of their conversion to God by a renewal of their love and devotion to one another. Parents: revere your children. Children: respect your parents. Brothers and sisters: let sibling rivalry yield to mutual caring. Teachers: value your students, and students: realize that your mentors have precious wisdom to impart. Doctors, nurses: treat your patients with attentiveness and understanding. Lawyers: be defenders of justice for all. Lawmakers: listen to the needs of your constituents. Constituents: exercise your right to vote justly. Workers: do a just days work. Employers: pay fair wages without discrimination; do not foster policies that militate against family life or values.
In a word, John would have his listeners pump the immediate zeal of their conversion into the long-term demands of daily living. Aware that this poses no easy challenge, Karl Rahner (The Great Church Year, Crossroad Pub. Co., New York: 1994) once observed that everyday morality is not so easy after all. To keep plodding ahead through a dull, tedious, everyday existence can often be more difficult than a unique deed whose heroism makes us run the danger of pride and self-satisfaction. Everyday morality means a life spent in duties and in the constant and daily renewed will to be just and good to others; it demands a strength and commitment whereby we do not allow ourselves to sink into tired resignation on account of the ordinariness of our day. Such a life of apparently humdrum banality becomes livable and even blessed when the believer learns that conversion does not happen only at one specific moment in time but that it becomes the hidden principle permeating the routing of life as a whole.
Although this years season of Advent is already half-spent, there is still time to ask the question: What ought we to do? . . . there is also still time to channel our eager willingness to respond to that question into the large and small, significant and insignificant moments of each and every day.
In Antoine de Saint-Exupérys mystical parable, The Little Prince (Le Petit Prince, 1943), the young protagonist from another planet finds himself stranded on earth. Frightened and bewildered, he is helped on his day by a fox. When circumstances make it necessary for the two to separate for a while, the fox insists that they set an exact time for their next meeting. When the little prince questions the fox about his insistence upon an exact time, the fox replies, If I know youll be coming at four oclock, then Ill begin to be happy at three oclock! In a sense, the prophet Zephaniah wished to stir the same excitement in his contemporaries. Its almost time for God to come. . . he seems to be saying. . . that day is fast approaching; therefore you can already begin to be happy!
The joyful and upbeat tone of this pericope stands out in marked contrast to the rest of Zephaniahs prophetic utterances. Therein he had castigated his people for their pride (1:6; 2:10, 15; 3:11), rebelliousness (3:1) and a lack of trust in God (1:12, 3:2). Like his predecessor Amos, Zephaniah warned that the Day of the Lord, for which Judah longed, would be a dark right of punishment and well-deserved retribution for sin and infidelity (1:7-18). On that day, the prophet promised, God will remove from your midst the proud braggarts; you shall no longer exalt yourself on my holy mountain. But I will lease as a remnant in your midst a people humble and lowly who shall take refuge in the name of the Lord: the remnant of Israel. They shall do no wrong and speak no lies. . . they shall pasture their flocks with no one to disturb them (3:11-13). It is to this remnant, i.e. to the humble and lowly ones or anawim that todays song of hope was addressed.
Prophesying in the turbulent years before Judahs conquest by Babylonia (ca 640-609 B.C.E.), Zephaniah anticipated the disaster which was soon to befall his people. Similarly he also anticipated the goodness of God who would not abandon the people who had been called, consecrated and committed to God through the bonds of the covenant. Therefore he was able to encourage his contemporaries. The Day of the Lord is almost here. . . you can begin to be happy.
While many scholars suggest that the humble and lowly ones were the remnant or the few who survived the decimation of Judah at the hands of the Babylonians, there is another, possible, and perhaps more plausible interpretation. Rather than envision the day of the Lord as a time for weeding out and destroying sinners (after all, who would be spared?) perhaps it could be understood as an encounter with the God of truth and justice whereby sin but not the sinner is removed. Through the suffering of the exile, those who were once proud, rebellious and inflated with a sense of their own self-importance, began to return to God, seeking forgiveness, healing and reconciliation. In their humbled and lowly state, they were able to recognize Gods will and acquiesce to Gods word. Keeping in mind the fact that Gods power is not spiteful but salvific, perhaps it would be more accurate to think of the humble and lowly not as fewer (a decimated remnant) but as forgiven.
Zephaniahs image of God in the midst of the people (vv. 15-16) reprises the God-with-us or Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah 7:14. As such, it remains a source of encouragement for Advent believers who, like St. Exupérys little fox know that God is coming. Indeed, God is already in our midst, therefore we can already begin to be happy!
One morning, as Mark Twain (Samuel Clemens: 1835-1910) and a companion were walking home from church, they heard a loud rumble of thunder and almost immediately rain began to fall heavily. As they scurried for shelter, Twains friend asked, Do you think it will ever stop?! It always has, quipped the author. Twains healthy optimism underscores the necessity of seeing things as they are. Rather than exaggerate lifes little and by large difficulties and thereby end up drowning in a teacup, optimistic people cultivate a perspective which helps them to cope sensibly as circumstances arise. When Paul challenged the believers in Philippi to develop a similar optimism, he was also quick to remind them of the advantages that were theirs. They could, indeed, rejoice and even rejoice always, not simply because they had learned to exercise a positive outlook toward life, but because God, the source of all peace was near!
Contemporary believers may wonder why, Paul was so adamant in his call for rejoicing. Why were the minds of the Philippians cluttered by anxiety? Contextually, this short pericope is an excerpt from a longer exhortation to two women, Evodia and Syntyche who ministered among the Philippian Christians. But they had had a falling out and their quarreling was disruptive to the harmony of the community. This internal problem was compounded by external pressure from a hostile Jewish population and a suspicious Roman presence; the nascent church was regarded as an anomaly which the prevailing religious and political authorities would readily be rid of. In addition to these factors, the early believers in Jesus were also struggling with the delay of his return; moreover, their eschatological anxieties were exacerbated by a true concern for Paul and his well-being at the time he quote to the Philippians he was in prison!
Lovingly, cognizant of their worries and fears, Paul reminded his friends at Philippi that their belief in God and particularly in Gods imminence, should afford them a proper perspective as regards all the worries of life. Readers of Paul should take note that Paul does not advocate a naive happy-go-lucky attitude which cavalierly laughs off the very real concerns of the human experience. Rather, he suggests that believers can put to rest all their anxieties, because they have entrusted them and all their needs to God in every form of prayer and in petitions so trusting as to be expressed in the form of gratitude.
In his reflection on this Pauline exhortation, Karl Rahner (Biblical Homilies, Herder and Herder, New York: 1966) said that it is astonishing that when the apostle speaks of the prayer that arises from the troubles of life, he thinks of gratitude or thanksgiving, i.e. of Eucharist, which is the word he used in verse six. When we pray, are we only little beggars before God, wrapped up in our own worries? Or is our heart even enlarged in thanksgiving, as if it were a great preface in the Eucharist of which our life is the celebration-thanksgiving that we are Christians, created, called, blessed, redeemed and pardoned by God. Are we grateful to be Gods predilect children, brothers and sisters of Jesus and temples of the Spirit? If so, then surely this gratitude, i.e., this sense of Eucharist should dispel anxiety and make room in our hearts for joy and peace.
An unknown author once wrote, Some people come into our lives and quickly go. Some stay for a while and leave footprints on our heart and we are never, ever the same. Jesus, and his herald, John the Baptizer were two such people and each Advent believers are called to pause for a while and listen to their hearts so as to rediscover and be renewed in the footprints that have been left there.
John is a preacher of repentance and a teacher of morals who annually challenges his listeners to translate their desire for conversion into appropriate and authentic words and works. As Luke Timothy Johnson (The Gospel of Luke, The Liturgical Press, Collegeville, MN: 1991) has pointed out, Luke casts John in the role of prophet who speaks the word of God (3:2) which is a form of good news for the people (3:18). Through Johns preaching, Luke leaves his footprints on the human experience, i.e., he imparts his characteristic insight that the use of possessions symbolizes ones response to Gods visitation. Confronted with the reality of God through Johns preaching, the crowds, tax collectors, and soldiers were invited to give up extortion, blackmail, gouging and acquisitiveness, and to begin sharing with the needy. In that way, they would be enacting in body language their repentance and faith.
But Johns role of preparing a people fit for the Lord (1:17) was a preliminary one, and, as such was subordinate to that of Jesus by whose footprints each of us has been affected and in whose footsteps John directed each of us to follow. The fact that Luke, who wrote in the eighties C.E. (some fifty years after Johns death), still considered it necessary to explain that the Baptizer was not the messiah attests to the persistence of a group of Johns followers. As late as the second Christian century some of Johns disciples awaited his return as messiah.
Calling Jesus mightier than I (v. 16), John described Jesus in terms which, in Jewish literature were ordinarily applied to the one who Johns baptism with water had been a preparatory cleansing but the mighty one would bring a bath of Spirit and fire. Both elements, spirit and fire, appeared together in a number of Old Testament passages as well as in the literature of Qumran wherein they were associated with the messianic era as a time of eschatological judgment (Ezekiel 36:26ff; Joel 3:2; Numbers 31:23; Malachi 3:2-3; Isaiah 4:4-5; 32:15; 44:3, 49; Manual of Discipline).
As Joseph Fitzmyer (The Gospel According to Luke, Doubleday and Co., New York: 1981) has noted, Johns water-baptism was intended to produce repentance but Jesus baptism was to accomplish a purification and a refinement. The character of Jesus baptism is further attested by the image of the winnowing fan. An eschatological symbol borrowed from the prophets (Isaiah 29:5-6; 41:16; Jeremiah 15:7), and from the tool shed of the Palestinian farmer (winnowing fans were large, wooden forklike shovels used to throw or fan grain into the air. After the good, heavier grain fell to the threshing floor, it was gathered and stored; the lighter chaff which blew aside was swept up and burned), the message of the winnowing fan was clear and powerful.
Johns baptism, like his preaching, pointed the way to Jesus, at whose coming, those who once asked, What ought we to do? (v. 10) would be called far beyond the simple ethic John had required. As Roland J. Faley (Footprints on the Mountain, Paulist Press, New York: 1994) has pointed out, Johns admonitions differed considerably from the radical demands which Jesus would require of his disciples (Luke 5:11, 27; 9:23ff; 9:57-62). Whereas John advocated fairness and equity, Jesus issued a call to perfection.
During the Advent season, as believers in Jesus reexamine the footsteps he has left in our hearts, we are also invited to renew our attentiveness to his radical demands.
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