Conversion is dying to old ways so that new life can blossom
This 2nd Sunday of Advent John the Baptist, the voice crying in the desert, calls us to repent as a way of preparing for the Lord’s coming. Let the second candle of Advent that we light be an expression of our resolve to turn away from our old ways and walk in the light of Christ.
- Isaiah 11: 1-10
- Romans 15: 4-9
- Matthew 3 1–12
The Voice crying in the desert
The Gospel presents John the Baptist who, appreciating how critical is the time, lives in the desert in the manner quite austere as a way of waiting for the Messiah. He is modest in his dress and in what he eats. However, John does not remain only on such external signs he goes further to call for inner transformation. He is the voice crying in the desert “repent for the Kingdom of heaven has come.” So he proposes a baptism of repentance. In response, people come to the Jordan to be baptised.
Indeed, it’s symbolically meaningful that people go to be baptised in the Jordan, near Jericho which is one of the lowest places on earth –about 258 metres below sea level. People, coming from the uplands of the mountainous Judea, descend to the Jordan. We would say, they somehow descend from the heights of their pride, die to sin in the waters of Jordan, and then come up again as renewed persons. Truly, this movement acts out John the Baptist’s message of conversion.
Pharisees and Sadducees, like many other people, respond to this call for baptism. Isn’t it strange then to see John bursting into fuming reproach against them? Poor Pharisees and Sadducees! What wrong have they done?
Conversion, not just ritual washing
John the Baptist is not a stranger; he is a child of the land and knows his people well. He knows Pharisees and Sadducees are fanatics of law and rituals; and once they fulfil the rituals the continue business as usual without any conversion. Besides, they have the pride of considering themselves as being good enough. So, they hardly see their need for repentance; it’s for others who are sinners.
On the contrary, John is not asking people just to come and fulfil the customary bathing, as Jews are used to do. He is rather calling for a real change of heart. So, unconvinced of the intention of such religious people John corrects them in strongest terms, calling them “You brood of vipers!” What could that mean?
You know, a snake is a cunning animal that camouflages itself. In its movements it doesn’t go straight but meanders. In this way, a snake is a good sign of a sneaky person with ambiguous intention. Probably, that’s why John calls Pharisees and Sadducees a bunch of baby snakes. He challenges them not just to content themselves with beautiful rituals; they should show the fruits of changed people.
How far do I go beyond rituals?
Easily, we too may fall into the trap of contenting ourselves with rituals. Once I go to mass, do the novena, or go on pilgrimage I think I have fulfilled what a good catholic should do –I’m OK. The voice crying in desert invites each person to look into oneself and see what needs a real change. With a week already gone in this season of Advent, the question that should interest us is not so much the acts I have accomplished, but more importantly, what rebirth have those acts produced in me?
That’s why Isaiah speaks of the new king who will judge not by appearance, not by rituals I fulfil, but by what lies deep down my heart. That is, how repentant am I?
Letting go, challenge of conversion
Welcoming the voice crying in the desert may be hard for us especially that it calls for conversion that involves cutting and letting go something in us. We often find security in holding onto our habits. Conversion involves dying to our old selves and rising to new life. For that we would need an attitude of trust and surrender to God. Again, in a beautiful way, Isaiah assures us that with God life can flourish even when we think there’s nothing left. Hence, our dying to sin isn’t a loss but a chance for new life to blossom.
A shoot from the stump of Jesse
In exile the sons of Israel hit the bottom rock and wonder, where’s our dignity as chosen people? The glorious days of the reign of David are well behind them. At such moment, they feel of themselves like a tree that is cut with its stump drying and dying slowly –perhaps only good for firewood. Isaiah tells them on this stump, apparently dead, life will thrive.
Such feeling of drying and dying is not foreign to us. We have known that at certain moments of our life: in our family, in marriage, in business or in our job. Everything just goes flat and we have no more the joy of living and we say to ourselves it’s finished. In this joyful hope for the coming of the Lord, the word of God assures us: it’s not finished. Our conversion is precisely giving chance to life. We let ourselves die to sin so that new life can flourish in us.
For that to happen, I need to look inside myself
Let’s be inspired by the story of Anthony de Mello from his Song of the bird about a wise man who once reflected about himself.
I was a revolutionary when I was young and all my prayer to God was: ’Lord, give me the grace to change the world.’ As I approached middle age and realized that half of my life was gone without changing a single soul, so I changed my prayer into: ‘Lord, give me the grace to change all those who come in contact with me. Just my family and friends and I shall be satisfied.’ Now that I am old and my days are numbered, I have begun to see how foolish I have been. My one prayer now is: “Lord, give me the grace to change myself.’ If I had prayed for this right from the start I should not have wasted my life.
Yes, Lord, give me the courage to look inside me with honesty, and an open ear to listen to the inner voice crying –repent!
(Wouldn’t you like to see a new bud on the stump of your friend’s life? Then share with them this word).