This past fall I visited the Netherlands, and I was amazed by their rivers that were carefully bounded by levees rising above the surrounding farmland. Within those river channels, large cargo vessels moved freely and efficiently above the farmsteads of the Dutch countryside. If those levees were breached, the river’s energy and direction would be lost. The river would leave destruction in its path, and ultimately it would dissipate into a useless puddle. Does this provide an object lesson for us when we move outside of boundaries, such as the moral teachings of the Church? And who among us does not have firsthand knowledge of the woes that come to us from doing so?
Fortunately this reading also includes hope, redemption, and forgiveness. Zephaniah’s message to the redeemed city is a message of hope, which is consistent with the light of Advent. Taking refuge in God allows His saving power to displace the rebellious spirit; humility and all that goes with it (including listening and obedience) will endure and rebellion will be left behind. Advent brings this possibility that much closer to reality. God Himself has come to be one of us, to be born in a manger to parents who embody the trust and humility described here. Hallelujah!
The Gospel reminds me of my youth, when my father used to ask me to join him to cut weeds on our farm. Sometimes I would resent his calling, wishing instead to be with my friends whose fathers seemed to be more solicitous of their youthful desires than mine ever seemed to be. But after protesting and resenting my plight, I would go. Mainly I went because I did not want my father to be there working alone. I realized he worked hard for our family, and I wanted to be like him. (My own children think that perhaps I, too, am not sufficiently solicitous of their youthful desires, so perhaps that intention has been fulfilled.) With time and distance, I have come to appreciate those times in the field with my father.
In today’s Gospel, Jesus provides a warning that resembles the message of the ancient prophet. Jesus chose to rock the concept of righteousness of those in the religious establishment, letting them know that externalities of appearance do not govern, but on the substance of what they do in response to the Father’s call. It opens the possibility that rebels who humble themselves to listen to God’s voice and do His will, may indeed reach the Kingdom of God.
Let each of us consider in our own hearts this Advent season how we go our own way and listen to our own voices above the voice of God. And note that the voice of God may sometimes be heard in the cries of the poor and needy among us. Sometimes it may also be the voice of the Church (or our parents and friends speaking those truths) trying to maintain the boundaries we need to keep moving forward, like those rivers that keep moving toward the sea, rather than dissipating into a big puddle going nowhere.
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