Since this is the only occasion in the three-year cycle when a passage from Zephaniah is read, a few words about this minor prophet would be in order.
Zephaniah’s prophetic activity coincided with the earlier part of Josiah’s reign (ca. 640-630 BC). He was probably located at Jerusalem. His prophecies are almost exclusively predictions of judgment.
His message is the same as that of Amos: “The day of Yhwh will be darkness and not light.”
Today’s excerpt comes from the only positive section of the work. It consists of a psalm inviting Zion to rejoice because salvation is at hand. The passage is so out of tune with the general tenor of Zephaniah’s work that it has been thought to be an addition by a later editor.
Like last Sunday’s passage from Baruch, this reading engenders an attitude of excited expectation for the intervention of Yhwh and is therefore fitting for the Advent season.
This week we depart from the usual practice of drawing upon the psalter for the responsorial reading and instead have an arrangement of the first song of Isaiah. It is uncertain whether this canticle is the work of Isaiah of Jerusalem. In fact, its tone rather suggests a situation at the return from exile.
In the Book of Common Prayer of the Episcopal Church, this song is provided as a canticle between the Old and the New Testament readings at the daily Office.
The song gives thanks for the divine salvation that had been promised in the Old Testament and is now on the brink of fulfillment. This makes it equally suitable for Advent.
Note particularly the emphasis on the presence of God in Israel (third stanza and refrain). The incarnation is the supreme realization of the coming of God to be present among his people.
If we accept the partition theory of Philippians, this passage will again
come from Paul’s second letter to the Christians of Philippi (see last Sunday’s comments).
This reading was the traditional one for the third Sunday of Advent and gave it the name “Gaudete Sunday.” (In the Book of Common Prayer the reading was shifted to the last Sunday of Advent.)
As the caption (“The Lord is near”) shows, the focal point of the passage is the statement that the Lord (the exalted Christ) is at hand.
Advent is not a gloomy season (it does have a penitential aspect—see John the Baptist’s message of repentance), despite the traditional use of the same liturgical color as is used for Lent. Rather, Advent is marked by a crescendo of joy.
As the Lord comes nearer and nearer, we become more and more excited. The rhythm of Advent is well captured by the Advent wreath, which starts with one lighted candle and ends with four.
This reading consists of two pericopes (in the form-critical rather than the liturgical sense of the word).
The first (Lk 3:10-14) is called by the Germans (who always seem to have neat names for pericopes) the Standespredigt of the Baptist, that is, his preaching to various classes of people: the crowds in general, the tax collectors, and the soldiers.
The second part is the Baptist’s messianic preaching. He disclaims any suggestion that he is the Messiah (see the interpolations in the Johannine prologue). Both Luke and John may reflect the claims of continuing followers of the Baptist; their man, rather than Jesus, was the Messiah. In point of fact, the Baptist had pointed forward to the coming of another, the strong One (“he who is mightier than I”).
Unlike the Baptist, who administers a baptism with water, the strong One will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. John’s baptism is preparatory. The strong One’s baptism will actually mediate the eschatological judgment, or salvation.
Mark had simply “Spirit,” while Matthew and Luke add “fire.” Probably “fire” alone is original and “Spirit” is a Christian addition reflecting the Pentecost event. Yet, the coming of the Spirit was part of Jewish eschatological expectation and was therefore implicit in the Baptist’s words.
Nor can we suppose that in speaking of the strong One the Baptist himself consciously had Jesus in mind; it is more likely that his conception of the Messiah was of one whose function would be more judgmental than salvific.
It has been suggested that this is why later on in prison John asked whether Christ was the coming One or whether people were looking for another. Jesus turned out to be a very different kind of Messiah from what John had expected.