On that day, it shall be said to Jerusalem:
Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!
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. Zephaniah 3,17-18.
The Lord is near.
Have no anxiety at all, but in everything,
by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving,
make your requests known to God.
Then the peace of God that surpasses all understanding
will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Philippians 4,6-7.
"What should we do?"
"Teacher, what should we do?"
"And what is it that we should do?"
Now the people were filled with expectation,
and all were asking in their hearts
whether John might be the Christ. Luke 3, 10-18.
The readings for Week 3 are a festival of anxiety and expectation, but also an opportunity for some grown-up soul-searching. Their message is especially true this weekend, when we once again see the cycle of evil become a part of our national experience. We will hear a multitude of explanations about the many factors that contribute to such manifest horror as the face-to-face murder of close family and of innocent children. The world awaits words that will suffice as wisdom: "What should we do?"
In the Gospel for Week 3, Jesus' earliest public advocate, John the Baptist, does his seeming best with the questions of the day, reminding the inquirers that they have moral duties that they have been taught: to be generous, to be modest in their desire for worldly wealth, and to give others the benefit of the doubt in day-to-day exchanges. It's the truth, but almost on the level of platitudes, like the speeches of Polonius in "Hamlet."
Like John's "everyman" portrayed by Luke, we also have a tendency to seek simplistic answers for what troubles us. As teachers we find so much blame to pass around for why things aren't easier: "I'm not paid enough. I have too much to do. The administrator and department chair don't get it. The parents (a) don't care, (b) spoil their kids and never say no to them, (c) think they can buy a diploma, (d) are conspiring to get me fired. My peers have done such a poor job teaching that I have to fix what they did wrong. The culture is full of negatives. The students today have it too easy and won't work. Their priorities are all wrong. They think they will become billionaire athletes, performers or celebrities, so their sense of entitlement knows no bounds." This, and much more, is our conventional wisdom, the easy answer-set addressing our everyday question, "What should we do?" We have all these impossible fixes to carry out, so who can blame us for living at the edge of despair no matter how hard we work.
We who have answered the teacher's vocation, and who take our hearing of the Scriptures seriously, are challenged to consider how the conventional wisdom is not enough to satisfy us in the roles of teachers, members of families and persons looking for a level of Truth capable of drawing us forward with joy from day to day.
John the Baptist really is a good teacher who knows that much. When pressed, he risks more--after all, he is also a seer, a prophet. Zephaniah and the others of the fellowship of the prophets had already dared to push the boundaries of the conventional and simplistic outlook on the world. These visionaries seek News that liberates heart and soul.
Platitudes are not enough, Zephaniah says, we must push past these to the mystery of God's work, not ours--in ourselves, in our students, in our world. Zephaniah is the prophet of the Day of Yahweh. He warns about its coming, but he also invites: "When that day comes, the message ... will be: Zion, have no fear ... Yahweh your God is there with you ... He will renew you by his love." (New Jerusalem trans.). In other words, raise your vision higher so that the ultimate and truest hope becomes the shaper of your attitudes and our deeds.
One of the daily prayers from the past week talks about our anticipation of an end to "the long night of Advent." St. Paul is able to say "The Lord is near. Have no anxiety at all...." While he praises the Philippians for their kindness and good sense, the thing that matters is their trust in "the peace of God, which surpasses understanding."
Back to John the Baptist: Luke's recounting of the episode recalls how John, in the role of Prophet, tells that "One mightier than I is coming ... To clear his threshing floor, to gather the wheat into his barn ... And burn the chaff in unquenchable fire." This might make us apprehensive rather than lessen our fears and insecurities. Luke understood the Christian truth of the matter, for he concludes that John, in this and "in many other ways, ...preached good news to the people." Good news? The Day of God?
We're invited this week to sober up and see things in the right perspective. It's not our everyday complaining, our focus on minutiae, important as attending to many of our daily duties and being good stewards in our field of responsibility can truly be, that will allow us to find God with us on Christmas and every other day. It is this arrival of Heaven "within the geography of the heart," as Pope Benedict has said, that allows us to work to be a fellowship of hope. One of the TV priests, Fr. Jonathan Morris, interviewed about the Newtown tragedy, asked by the news anchor what those who are hurting should do, began his answer by saying "It's all about Heaven." When we model this hope--truly a Christmas Gift--for ourselves, our students, our peers, our supervisors and employers, and our society, then our ears will open to hear and our hearts will prepare to do the Good News.