The mass opens with ‘Rejoice’ and rose vestments indicate a break with the purple of preparation. Joy pervades the rest of the liturgy, and indeed it is a joyful time of year for many. But not all the time, nor for all. It is worth remembering that the prophets’ calls to rejoice were not usually addressed to people who were already happy, but instead were oppressed, discouraged and doubting. The joy promised by scripture is not the natural emotion when things are going well, but a deep awareness that no matter what suffering and difficulties we have, there is a loving God who will bring us a deeper joy in God’s own time and mercy.
This is one of the shorter books of the ‘Minor Prophets’ and it has one of my favourite images of God. Zephaniah’s ministry was in the time of King Josiah (640-609 BCE) when reforms had begun after a time of religious apostasy. Problems still remained, and there were foreign threats against the kingdom. The first sections are words of warning, but at the end we have the promises of salvation. In poetic form we begin with calls to rejoice. ‘Daughter Zion’ (or ‘of Zion’) and ‘Daughter Jerusalem’ are personifications of the people, and all are called to proclaim happiness. The Lord is represented as being in the midst, ‘with’ his people, and that fits the Christian title of Jesus as ‘Emmanuel’ – meaning ‘God with us’. The final words poetically describe God as sharing in joy, love and celebration – for biblical writers, God is brought close to us in images from human life.
Dancing was part of any happy festival of that time, and could also a part of religious worship. There are some Christians today who are willing to dance as part of their worship celebrations although that is not the usual experience now. The traditional style of dancing is in a group, not in pairs or as an individual ‘performance’. The shared communal movement is especially appropriate for worshipping in community. But it must have been as startling then as it can be now to think of God dancing – even as a poetic image.
The image of the dancing God has inspired a song ‘And the Father Will Dance’. Dancing was earlier applied to Christ in a Medieval carol, ‘Tomorrow will be my Dancing Day’, and also is in a contemporary hymn by Sidney Carter, ‘The Lord of the Dance.’
Did Jesus himself dance? Dancing today may be a traditional part of Jewish wedding, and we know from the gospel of John that Jesus and his disciples were at a wedding feast in Cana. His dancing with the happy wedding party would have been in the spirit of Zephaniah’s dancing Father.
Response Isaiah 12:2-6
Instead of the usual selection from the book of Psalms, we have a hymn from the prophet Isaiah, again full of joy. Here God is called ‘my song’, another image of rejoicing, with another emphasis on God in the midst of the people.
More joy as Paul writes to his favourite community. The translation in our reading is ‘to be happy’ but I prefer the usual version of ‘rejoice’, as it suggests a celebration more than quiet contentment. The word translated ‘tolerance’ has the meaning of ‘fairness’, or ‘gentleness’, perhaps more positive than ‘putting up with’ which is the usual sense in current speech. Rather than being anxious about our lives, Paul wants us to pray for what we need. The ‘peace of God which is greater than we can understand’ leads us deeper, almost mystically, into that assurance which Jesus came to bring us.
John the Baptist is again the focus of the Gospel selection. It is only Luke who gives us these very practical, everyday examples of John’s teaching on what ‘repentance’ or ‘conversion’ means for individual lives. The first is a general one for all: share with those in need. Tax collectors were notorious for gouging people to pay more than they owed, and keeping the surplus to enrich themselves. (This is a reason they play the role of a despised class in the gospels.) Soldiers too were in a position to abuse their power.
‘A feeling of expectancy’ is a theme of Advent, and it was felt by those who hear John. They wonder if he fulfils the hope that the Messiah will come. John does not accept that this is his role and points them to someone more powerful who is ‘coming’. The next warnings may not seem so joyful – words implying judgment. In the Bible, however, the needy and powerless see ‘judgment’ as something which will free them from oppression. Judgement meant liberation to rejoice in. For the guilty, it is a warning to change and be saved.
The imagery is drawn from ‘winnowing’, the method used in the past for threshing grain, to get out the edible kernels– the ‘wheat’ – and separate them from the straw or ‘chaff’ which might be used for animals or for fuel. A ‘fan’ was used to blow the lighter chaff away. For those in our times whose lives are more than comfortable financially but who still strive for greater riches and possessions, John’s words are a reminder of God’s values.