In a recent talk, Sister Dianne Bergant, a Scripture scholar, chided those who use Advent to prepare for the birth of the baby Jesus.

"That baby's already been born," she reminded her audience. "He grew up, was killed and rose from the dead. Our Advent readings proclaim the freeing of a helpless people -- the people Jesus of Nazareth came to set free."

The theme of freedom runs throughout our sacred writings. In the Hebrew Scriptures, it begins with the people's emancipating Exodus from Egypt; in the Christian Scriptures, it revolves around Jesus' liberating Resurrection.

Free at last

Although Zephaniah was six centuries removed from the Exodus, his oracles reproduced the joy and amazement that had filled the Israelites as they marched "dry-shod" through the sea (Zephaniah 3:14-18A).

Egypt was no longer the enemy in Zephaniah's time; Babylon was. Yet, no matter the situation, Yahweh was still "in your midst, a mighty savior." God alone "removed the judgment against you, turned away your enemies."

With no concept of an afterlife as we know it, our ancestors in the faith knew salvation only by experiencing freedom. As a good Jew, Paul shared that belief (Philippians 4:4-7). His voice must have raised a few tones as he dictated the words of the second reading: "Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again, Rejoice....The Lord Himself is near. Dismiss all anxiety from your minds."

Jesus brought Paul the freedom he and his people had sought over the 12 centuries since the Exodus. Finally, there was a reason to rejoice. Yet this liberation didn't happen without the participation of those who were liberated.

In the above quote, I omitted seven words essential to Christian freedom. Sister Diane stressed in her lecture that people are free only when they form communities. Her classic definition of community is "a group of people who take responsibility for one another."

Paul's seven essential words are: "Your kindness should be known to all." The footnote in the New American Bible translation states that kindness, in this context, can also be translated as "considerateness, forbearance, fairness." The original New American translators rendered the sentence, "Everyone should see how unselfish you are."

No matter what English words we use, Paul was reminding the Philippian church of its community responsibilities. Technically, I'm not responsible for the people in front or behind me in a store check-out lane. But those who "become Church" are deeply responsible for one another.

Together, the Apostle frequently teaches, we form the Body of Christ. Nothing could more bind us together as one.

Who's coming?

Notice in the Gospel this Sunday how John the Baptizer answers the query, "What then should we do?" (Luke 3:10-18) He replies: "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. Whoever has food should do likewise."

Tax collectors and soldiers receive a specific response: "Stop collecting more than what is prescribed....Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages."

John says nothing about believing in specific dogmas or engaging in meaningful liturgies. His answer to anyone who asks is basically the same: "Relate to people as someone who is responsible for them."

That's why his comment about Jesus is so important: "One mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire."

In other words, "The one I'm preceding will be even more emphatic than I am on how you're to relate to one another. There's no other way He can lead you to freedom."

Fortunately, we're hearing these biblical words in the context of the Lord's Supper, the action that most makes us one. Look around as these words are being proclaimed, and glance at those with whom you share responsible ties -- those who guarantee us the freedom Jesus has won for us.

(12/14/06)