Some of us struggle to experience joy in our hearts. In response we may guard ourselves against anything negative in our lives. This includes accepting “negative things” about ourselves. If we meditate on these things, what will free us from our sorrow? But scripture reveals that it is an awareness of our sin and allowing God to separate us from it; this is how we receive the gift of true joy. That is why John’s harrowing words are good news. These words, “God’s winnowing fan is in his hand to clear the threshing floor; the chaff will burn with unquenchable fire.” God is present to separate us from our sin and even make it pass out of existence with the fire of loving forgiveness leaving us joyful for the coming of our Christ.
It’s important to note that John is not speaking of God separating people, holy from unholy, casting into hell some, while bringing others to heaven. No, he says that the Holy Spirit and fire touch us all the baptized. What could he mean by God’s fire burning the chaff? Of wheat being gathered into a barn? Remember John had just finished instructing different people on what actions they should continue doing and which they should stop. He didn’t tell the tax collectors to stop being a tax collectors, he told them to stop charging more and pocketing the difference. He didn’t tell the soldiers to stop being a soldiers, he told them to stop abusing their power. What this means is that regardless of our past behavior, we are worth saving. The whole man, God wants to save, everything but sin. Sin, he wants to winnow away, freeing us from it and burning it by the fire of loving forgiveness. [God’s salvation includes both Baptism in the Holy Spirit but also the Sacrament of Reconciliation where the fire of his merciful love burns away our sins.] He is at the threshing floor, with us, doing his work.
[The only possibility of interpreting this as referring to people being burned is in the case where the wheat refuses to be separated from the chaff. If only we let go of our sin in the process, we gently fall back down to the threshing floor and become ready to enter heaven / the barn. What we find here is God’s presence with us at the threshing floor, his continual attempts to separate us from our sin, and him laboring joyfully. If only we let go of our sin before the Holy Spirit blows so hard as to carry us off with it, we will be in good shape. So let’s let go of our sin and be purified through this process of the Father.]
We heard in the first reading, “He will rejoice over you with gladness, and renew you in his love, he will sing joyfully because of you, as one sings at festivals.” He sings a joyful song to us as he works. Our sins hold us back from hearing his song of joy, as we allow God to work, we become at peace with the process of going through times of penance and celebration. As the second reading proclaimed, “The Lord is near… the peace of God that surpasses all understanding will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.” He is working to free us from sin and then guard us from it. God is present, and he is purifying us from behavior, from chaff, that robs us of his joy. This scripture is good news because it is proclaiming God’s presence and active love. He works to save us from that which saddens.
We have learned that it is right to feel true sorrow for our sins, and also for the sins of all humanity, but are we to remain there forever? No, God teaches us how afterward we experience joy. Winnowing is an up and down sort of thing, right. We are thrown up in to the air, and then we return to the ground. What separates the wheat from the chaff when it is in the air? The wind, the Holy Spirit. We may experience anxiety, fear, of being thrown into the air, of receiving God’s forgiveness through confession, but that is clearly a time when the Holy Spirit is flowing through us, healing us from the attachment of sin. We then return to God’s feet, more purified than before, better able to hear his song of joy and made ready to be gathered into his barn when Christ comes.
It is Gaudete Sunday. God himself guards us from endless sorrow. As we await the second coming of his Son, let us remember that God is here, getting us ready to receive Christ Jesus, separating us from that which robs us of joyful expectation. Let us allow him to work by accepting the negative things about ourselves during seasons of penance. Thanks be to God; it is good news.