FROM A READING FOR DEC. 13, THIRD SUNDAY OF ADVENT
'The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be known to God. And the peace of God will guard your hearts...' - Philippians 4:6

One of the problems with the readings contained in our liturgical celebration of Advent is that many of us logically employ them to prepare for Christmas, forgetting that none of them were composed for that purpose.

This is especially true on "Laetare Sunday." Our sacred authors aren't rejoicing over the future coming of Jesus at Bethlehem; they're joyfully reflecting on the God already in their midst.

Few prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures zero in on this belief better than Zephaniah, the author of Sunday's first reading (Zep 3:14-18a). Active during the late-seventh-century-BC reign of the reforming king Josiah, the prophet ends his short collection of oracles with a basic reminder to people of faith.

No matter what's happening around us, no matter how confusing the life we live, no matter the tensions we constantly experience, he says, "Yahweh 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."

We can never forget that the historical Jesus of Nazareth proclaimed the same message at the beginning of His public ministry, reminding His disciples that God's kingdom is so close, we can extend our hand and touch it. God is present and working ­effectively in each of our lives.

Better than John
Luke (3:10-18) was convinced that the morality flowing from this conviction of the presence of God's kingdom was so powerful that it trumped even that taught and experienced by the prophetic reformer John the Baptizer.

Though the evangelist certainly agreed with John's command to share what we have with those who have nothing, to stop extorting money from the helpless and to cease lying about others' actions, he was convinced that Jesus' arrival would usher in an even deeper way of relating to God and the people around us.

For the evangelist, the unique ritual which would symbolize this new covenant wouldn't be just a "water" baptism; it would come "with the Holy Spirit and fire."

Serious students of Scripture respect the importance of the Spirit in Luke/Acts. Writing in the mid-80s, the evangelist and his community know just the risen Jesus. As far as we can determine, none had ever personally encountered the itinerant Galilean preacher who lived and taught during the first third of the first century AD.

They experienced only the "new creation" who was neither Jew nor Gentile, slave or free, male or female. And it was the Spirit who helped them surface that risen Jesus in their daily lives.

Day-to-day lives
Unlike his mentor, the Baptizer, who was constantly looking for the arrival of Yahweh, the historical Jesus was convinced Yahweh was already present, day by day working effectively in everything and everyone they experienced.

Though John thought the morality which he expected his followers to practice would hasten Yahweh's coming into this world, Jesus was convinced that the love of neighbor which He preached was simply the essential way to surface the God already here.

No wonder Paul encourages his Philippian community (Phil 4:4-7) to rejoice. He certainly wants the risen Jesus to quickly come in a triumphant "Parousia" to complete the salvation He had achieved by His death and resurrection. But, in the meantime, Paul reminds his followers that Jesus, as Yahweh, is among us here and now. Why would anyone waste their time longing for someone who's already here?

Centuries after the historical Jesus' resurrection, when we began to celebrate His birthday, we also began to employ Sunday's readings in ways their authors could never have imagined.