A Native African Patriarch who wished to provide a happy future of his grandchildren often shared with them the stories of their ancestors. Each story held not only an entertaining piece of shared heritage, but also a life lesson intended to cultivate wisdom. On one occasion, this grandpa told his eager young listeners that every person has two wolves inside who are engaged in a struggle.
One wolf is of justice, peace and loving kindness; while the other is of hatred, fear and greed. Which wolf will win asked one grandson! The grandpa replied, ‘whichever one we feed’. During the season of Advent, those who affirm their desire to welcome Christ into their lives are invited to face the wolves that dwell within them. Identifying these wolves is a good first step; deciding which to feed sets the agenda for your lifelong struggle.
First reading: Zephaniah 3:14-18
Let me start by first destructing you a bit. Always imagine that comparisons are odious! This saying first uttered by John Lydgate around 1440 AD in his Debate between the Horse, Goose and Sheep, has been repeated through the centuries by many, including Shakespeare and John Donne implying that comparisons may cause conflict and hatred. All the same, today’s first reading represents a fine example of clarification through comparison. Zephaniah called his audience to rejoice in the same way their God was rejoicing over them. Described as a ‘warrior savior’ this God who rejoices over you with happy song renews you by his love with dance and shouts of joy as on a day of festival! This dancing and singing God is the Lord of humankind.
Joy, as expressed here represents a radical departure from Zephaniah’s first two chapters, wherein the sins of the people are enumerated and the Day of the Lord is described as a “dark night of judgment” Zephaniah 1:7-18. After that day, however, God would “leave a humble and lowly people in your midst … they will do no wrong, tell no lies … they will rest with no one to disturb them” Zephaniah 3:11-13. It is to these lowly, the anawim/remnant that the joyous message of today is addressed and then God in our midst represent the Emmanuel prophecy of Isaiah cf. Zephaniah 7:4 stirring up joys associated with the messianic era. This cheerful God is the one we are preparing to welcome on Christmas day.
Second reading: Philippians 4:4-7
What makes Paul’s joy remarkable is the fact that he never knew the earthly Jesus. Like us, he was moved to faith through an encounter with the risen Lord on the road to Damascus. From that moment onwards Paul began to dance a new dance and fed a new wolf of loving kindness. Paul became a credible witness to believers by the way he lived his life and the words he shared with all who had courage to hear. In this way he gratuitously prepared Christians for the second coming of Jesus insisting that they should be joyful. Paul’s double imperative of ‘Rejoice! Rejoice!’ resounds even more poignantly when we recall that at the time he wrote to the Philippians, he was in prison. Despite these circumstances, Paul was less worried because he was not suffering in vain but for the sake of the Gospel. Paul challenges us to equally manage any anxiety that may befall us while waiting for Christ’s second return. Rather than worry, he recommends prayer! Rather than fret, trust! Rather than lament, to rejoice!
Every believer’s joy should find its expression in what Paul called epieikeia. One of the most difficult of all Greek words to translate, epieikeia cf. Philippians 4:5 has been variously translated to mean ‘modesty’ ‘forbearance’ ‘kindness’ ‘gentleness’ ‘tolerance’ ‘good sense’ ‘magnanimity’ and ‘patience’. Greeks insisted that epieikeia meant justice and even something better than justice. People practice epieikeia when they disregard applying rigid letters of the law and act out of mercy. This is the manner in which God deals with sinners; not exacting the justice that would see them punished but extending mercy that saves them. This quality became flesh in Jesus, and we who prepare to welcome him should deal with others in a similar way.
Gospel: Luke 3:10-18
People who known the joy of being taught well can appreciate the significance of this Gospel. At the time of John the Baptist, the atmosphere in Judah was predominant with messianic expectancy. Tapping into that it, John came preaching with great enthusiasm; his was good news and his excitement about the coming Christ was so contagious that it evoked in his listeners a willingness to be taught. ‘What should we do?’ asked the crowds, the tax collectors and the soldiers. In response, John set forth a program of conversion that would effectively create disciples for Jesus and restoration of spiritual health to a brother or a sister whose life has been endangered by a particular acts and attitudes. To those in the crowds who were rich; they were asked to share with the needy; the tax collectors were urged to be honest and just; and the soldiers were warned against abusing their authority by taking advantage over the defenseless. These single, significant acts became the first of many actions that were intended to mold followers of Jesus who, in turn, would impact a difference in their respective social venues. John’s was a messenger of social responsibility. His responses to all questions on ‘what should we do’ were aimed at alleviating injustices and inequities that were the culture of the day. These social and economic concerns are still an agenda for as a Church today cf. Acts 2:43-47.
The urgency of that agenda burning during John’s days has been underscored by Luke’s reference to the judgment that would accompany the advent of the Messiah cf. Luke 3:15-18. Spirit and fire signaled the presence of God and his judgment day. Despite the element of urgency and the references to the coming separation of good from bad “wheat from chaff” Luke 3:17; these words should not be used to launch attacks on listeners recklessly without redemptive content. In order to be truly teachable, words of warning are accompanied by promises that repentance will be met with forgiveness. After all, the intent of Jesus is to save and not merely to punish. Thus the charisma of John, Paul and Zephaniah are intended to assist us learn right steps in the dance of life and decide which wolves to be fed and which to starve.
Let us be aware that because of what we may call delayed eschatology, some of us have been feeding wrong wolves of procrastination, putting off time for conversion until some distant tomorrow. The time to start on ourselves is today. When we look at the world with hopeless eyes we see only its incurable ills. This will make us wait without eagerness; hope hopelessly simply because we have no conviction. We need to start anticipating quality life with enough faith to ignite enthusiasm. We have to join the camp of Zephaniah, Paul and John in raising powerful prophetic voices that the Lord is indeed in our midst.
As is reflected in today’s Gospel, the enthusiastic preaching of John the Baptist should provoke us to question the type of lives we live. We are invited reject selfishness because rather than sharing, we hoard and overlooked the needs of the poor most of whom are even our relatives. Today we are called to conversion. Others among us could be busy feeding the wrong wolf of greed to the extent of sacrificing our ethics and good cultural values. Still others among us may allow the wolves of false ambition to lead us to lie, cheat and lord our authority over the helpless. If we need a credit from the teachings of today, we have to express our willingness to change and promise ourselves to do better. Among the signs of change is betterment of self, being merciful and living with our integrity. When we do this, then peace is in our hands.
Today God invites us to start being happy so as to rejoice; we have no choice but to accept the invitation. Problems and struggles of this current time are evident and at times frightening! We should not simply sit on them but present them to Jesus in prayer. We are lucky because we know the difference between right and wrong, good and bad; this is the time to convert at start straight away living a worthy life. I short, let us stop feeding the wrong wolf that lives within us because it will provoke mistrust, wrong desires, worry and anxiety which are not necessary in our present age and time. May this joyful expectation be a moment of a new dawn in our lives.