As Wheat Gathered by the Lord

Third Sunday of Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-18a, Philippians 4:4-7, Luke 3:10-18.

Gaudete in Domino semper! These are the first words of today’s second reading and, in fact, the introit (opening chant) for the third Sunday in Advent, marking Gaudete Sunday every year. What does it mean? The Latin translates as “Rejoice in the Lord always,” so we celebrate Rejoice Sunday. Hooray!

But what is joy, really? St. Thomas Aquinas writes that “joy is caused by love,” either in the presence of something that is loved or having that thing you love achieve it’s proper state of goodness (Summa II-II, q28.1). There is joy in earthly things, but the highest joy is spiritual because the highest form of love is charity (caritas). As St. Thomas writes, “according to 1 John 4:16: ‘He that abideth in charity, abideth in God, and God in him.’ Therefore spiritual joy, which is about God, is caused by charity” (Ibid). There is something circular here, something only the Creator Himself can generate: we rejoice in God always because God is the very charity that creates the joy we have. It boils down to simply allowing ourselves to exist wholly in His generative presence, which is love itself, and which generates the joy we experience.

Adoration of the Magi (detail), Domenico Ghirlandaio (1488-1489) | Wikimedia Commons.

As we dig into St. Paul’s exhortation in the second reading, we should note a subtlety to today’s Lectionary translation. We hear today, “Your kindness should be known to all,” but “kindness” is an interesting translation of the original Greek, ἐπιεικὲς (epieikes), which means gentle spirit or gentleness. The Latin Vulgate translation is Modestia vestra nota sit omnibus hominibus, or “let your moderation be known unto all men.” So, we have a key word, epieikes or modestia, which is variously translated as forbearance, gentleness, reasonableness, moderation, and humility. In fact, our Lectionary is the only place I’ve found it translated as kindness. This is a point to consider, especially in the context of what we are called to do and to be. Certainly, our call to love God and then our neighbor as ourselves (simply put, a call to caritas or agape) can manifest itself as kindness. I’m not saying this is a mis-translation. But kindness emphasizes an act that we do – something we call up within us and enact on the world around us. These other words: forbearance, gentleness, moderation, and humility, all emphasize a state of internal calm that radiates through our actions. It is best phrased in perhaps the closest translation, gentle spirit. This emphasizes an internal ordering toward God, a letting go of self rather than an assertion of self. St. Paul is exhorting the Philippians (and all of us) to be known for our gentle spirit. Indeed, in the next sentence he says, “Be anxious about nothing.” This is Christianity on earth: a gentle spirit, anxious about nothing, living in Christ and awaiting His triumphant return; awaiting our own second birth into heaven. This is the essence of Gaudete Sunday, especially.

This gentle spirit, ordered to and ordered by God, is compatible with St. Thomas’s discussion of joy, too. He writes, “joy is not a virtue distinct from charity, but an act, or effect, of charity” (Summa, II-II, q 28.4). Joy, in other words, is brought about by charity. As stated earlier, when God loves us, joy is the natural effect. Contemplating and living in the Christ event brings this joy back to the surface of our minds. Living in Christ also means allowing God’s love – charity – to flow through us to others. Our gentle spirit can be anxious about nothing as we are rejoicing in God always because we exist within the constant effects of charity.

This is getting a little abstract and philosophical (as St. Thomas tends to do). Let’s bring it back to the reality of Jesus Christ, man and God, alive on earth. In his excellent apostolic exhortation in 1975, Gaudete in Domino, Pope Paul VI reminds us: “But it is necessary here below to understand properly the secret of the unfathomable joy which dwells in Jesus and which is special to Him. It is especially the Gospel of Saint John that lifts the veil, by giving us the intimate words of the Son of God made man. If Jesus radiates such peace, such assurance, such happiness, such availability, it is by reason of the inexpressible love by which He knows that He is loved by His Father” (III). Pope Paul VI goes on to recount the number of ways John tells us Christ knows the Father and is united with Him: “It is an unceasing and total exchange: ‘All I have is yours and all you have is mine.’ The Father has given the Son the power to judge, the power to dispose of life. It is a mutual indwelling: ‘…I am in the Father and the Father in me….’.” Pope Paul VI’s point is to more clearly flesh out the charity that gives us joy. Perfect charity is the relationship between God the Father and God the Son: “Here there is an uncommunicable relationship of love which is identified with His existence as the Son and which is the secret of the life of the Trinity: the Father is seen here as the one, who gives Himself to the Son, without reserve and without ceasing, in a burst of joyful generosity, and the Son is seen as He who gives Himself in the same way to the Father, in a burst of joyful gratitude, in the Holy Spirit.” And, the best part: “And the disciples and all those who believe in Christ are called to share this joy.” There it is! This is the fullness of what St. Paul means when he says rejoice in the Lord always.

Christ in Prayer, El Greco (1595-1597) | Wikimedia Commons.

This (and every) Advent, we remember the anticipation of the world awaiting its Savior. We also anticipate the second coming of Christ. And, finally, we celebrate Christ being here with us already. This third reality is most clearly articulated here on the third Sunday of Advent through St. Paul’s words to the Philippians, who were themselves living in the new reality brought to the Earth through His death and resurrection. Zephaniah, too, in the first reading foresees this age: “the King of Israel, the LORD, is in your midst, you have no further misfortune to fear … 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.” What a deep and accurate prophecy! This is the same Word that speaks through St. Paul to the Philippians, a Word that unveils the meaning of the Christ event in the lives of humans. How can we fear misfortunes here on earth when the grave has been conquered and eternal life in Heaven has been offered to us? Humanity’s greatest fear and sadness, that we will cease to exist one day and that life has no meaning beyond the present, has been blown to bits by Christ’s sacrifice. What joy that His love of the Father has provided us a Way to the Kingdom! Rejoice in the Lord always!

We cannot end this reflection without gazing at the titanic figure of St. John the Baptist, the great prophet, the voice crying out in the wilderness. In the gospel reading, John teaches the crowds to stop being selfish: “share with the person who has none … Stop collecting more than what is prescribed … Do not practice extortion.” Let’s remember that John has felt the effects of charity come to earth; he “leaped for joy” in Elizabeth’s womb when Mary, carrying Jesus, came near. Like a supernova, the child even as an embryo radiated charity upon the world, transforming the hearts of those open to Him. John is so transformed that he spends his life preparing the world for Jesus. What other messianic figure in that day (and there were many, as we know from the historic record) tells his expectant, adulatory followers that he doesn’t want their praise, that “one mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals”? Only a man who has been transformed by God and holds no stock in worldly things can so thoroughly cast off the mantle that his followers want to place on him. John, filled with the zeal of the Lord, infects his followers with the anticipation of Christ that fills him. What’s more, this anticipation is not just one of looking and waiting but one that paves the way for charity. He tells them to stop being selfish while they wait so that they can prepare themselves for the more radical baptism in the Spirit that Jesus will bring to them. If they can repent, strip away their concern for worldly pleasure and security, they will create fertile ground for the message Christ brings.

Preaching of St. John the Baptist, Domenico Ghirlandaio (1486-1490) | Wikimedia Commons.

I choose the agricultural metaphor purposely, because John, in his brilliance as a prophet, does the same. Let us concentrate on these final words of the gospel reading as John describes Christ: “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.” On the most obvious level, the metaphor is one his listeners can understand given the tools and occupation common to their time and place. A winnowing fan is used at the harvest to separate the good grain from the husks, dust, stalks and other “chaff” that do not serve as food. Metaphorically, the wheat are those who please God while the evil ones are the chaff. The harvester is Christ, the one who brings the final judgment. But the metaphor is agricultural particularly because it involves growth and harvest. He could have used a metaphor of a builder choosing strong stones instead of weak ones, or any number of other metaphors. But this one reminds us that life is at stake. First, life is implicated because we can grow into wheat or dead stalks. This is a living process in which we are bound up. Second, life is at stake because the wheat will go on to a greater life (gathered into the barn, or kingdom of Heaven) while the chaff will be burned in unquenchable fire. Finally, the third and most intricate reading here is to consider what the life of mature wheat is. Wheat feeds us, it is nourishment, it is an offering of life. Literally, it forms the grain offering, the minchah, that is prescribed in the Book of Leviticus where the finest parts of the grain, the semolina, are offered to God, either ground, cooked, or burnt. This is our destiny, to feed others, and to be an offering of life to the Father. Our greatest destiny and goal is to be gathered like wheat to the Father where we cease living simply for ourselves (that is, to grow nice, fat grains on the stalk). The mature wheat, having been grown rejoicing in the charity of God, achieves its ultimate purpose: to nourish others and be an offering to God Himself. Astounding depth in a simple metaphor!

And this is why John must begin the process by having us turn our mindset away from self and towards others. Our ultimate purpose, revealed through Christ, is to grow into something great with a purpose beyond us. If we allow ourselves to rejoice in the Lord always, to be fully caught up in His love, we just might achieve it.

Wheat, Thomas Hart Benton (1967) | Image courtesy the Smithsonian American Art Museum.

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