Sunday, December 16, 2012

Advent: What Should We Do?

In May, 1970, a priest friend of mine asked for assistance on a retreat for the Sisters of St. Joseph in Sudbury, Ontario, Canada. I recall the unsettling shock of flying in over Sudbury: the whole landscape was an utter wasteland: barren, grey, and lifeless. 

The land which became Sudbury had been hit over a billion years ago by a falling asteroid, some 6-12 miles in diameter, creating a crater approximately 12.5 miles deep, melding the rocks together to form a kidney-shaped basin, and producing a mother lode of nickel, copper & platinum. People stumbled upon these remnants and began mining them in the 1880‘s and 1890’s, continuing through the present. Some of Sudbury’s nickel was used in constructing the Statue of Liberty in the 1930’s, as well as for the roof of the National Cathedral in Washington, D.C. 

It was mining pollution, over the previous century, which had killed off wildlife and made the denuded landscape look like a lunar surface, a “moonscape”, up until the 1980’s. When I visited Sudbury in 1970, it had the reputation of being the biggest producer of acid rain-causing chemicals in North America. Significant changes in the 1980’s, however, led to a phenomenal restoration of the environment there. 

You might think of the area surrounding the Jordan River in which John the Baptizer preached as something like the old Sudbury. It was desolate, ugly, the water full of silt, surrounded by marl hills, dry scrub brush, extremely hot and arid, with little life. There were lots of sly, venomous, deadly vipers or asps carrying poison in their systems. And lots of rocks and stones. In a play on words, Luke (3:7-18) records John the Baptizer shouting, “I tell you, God is able from these stones (abanim in Hebrew) to raise up children (banim in Hebrew)”.

In this desolate setting John the Baptizer and preacher prepares the people for the revelation of God’s glory, which for John, of course, is Jesus. John’s message is: don’t be like vipers, crafty and deadly with the poison of malice and evil. Don’t be like the scrub brush, but bear fruit, the fruit of repentance, charity and justice.

The repentance which John the Baptizer preached was conversion (Greek = metanoia): radical change of mind and heart. It’s what the Rule of St. Benedict calls conversatio morum, as Sr. Joan Chittester notes in her book Wisdom Distilled From the Daily (p. 143). It means conversion of life, change of one’s habits, of one’s way of doing things. Our English word conversion doesn’t bear the richness of meaning of the Latin word, conversatio. The Latin word comes from con + vertere = the idea of circular movement, turning around, transforming, 
being reversed in order, relation, or action. The core meaning, as used by John the Baptizer and St. Benedict, amounts to fidelity in living how God wants us to live, which is another way to say following Jesus. 

John the Baptizer tells the people not to be like the rocks and stones, prideful followers of Abraham, but to be children of the Father who sent Jesus the Christ, the Anointed One, as the model of devotedness to God. John insists on interior holiness, not racial descent, or, in our case, baptismal descent! God can beget the spirit of Abraham, the father of faith, more easily in humble Gentile penitent sinners than in self-righteous children of Abraham. John insists on the need to bear fruit, good fruit. He predicts that out of all this desolation, if people are willing to open their hearts to the Holy One, a new beginning can blossom.

The crowds, perhaps unsure and a bit confused, ask John, “What, then, should we do?” We, too, in our Advent journey ask the same question. How do we change our hearts and bear fruit? John advises his hearers, in general, to do the basic works of charity and justice: if you have two coats, share one; from the abundance of your own food, share with others who have little or none. He tells the tax collectors to take only what they’re supposed to, and not to scam people or extort interest from them. Soldiers are not to misuse their power through violence or false accusation. They’re to stop griping about their wages: after all, they’re “civil servants”, government employees in service of the people.

So, what about you and me? What are we to do? Whether a person is a teacher, a secretary, a contractor, a student, a priest, a housewife, a salesperson, etc., you and I are to convert our lives, adjust our mind-set, to “bear the fruit of repentance” in the same way in which John advises his hearers. We, too, are called to do the ordinary tasks of life, but with extraordinary love. The Gospel words try to help us recognize the depth of our weakness in doing this, our desperate need of a savior: Jesus, Jeshua, “The One who saves”.

John’s message suggests our need to open our lives and ourselves to Jesus’ saving presence. His preaching stirs up in us a longing for the promised, long-awaited salvation, and his baptism with water, as noted in last Sunday’s Gospel, is a “baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins”, a baptism for changing our hearts. Jesus baptizes us with Holy Spirit and fire, synonymous with God’s powerful, purifying presence. When we come into God’s presence through Jesus we’re seen as we really are. Like a winnowing fan, blowing chaff away until only the wheat is left, so all our insincerity, hypocrisy, and cover-ups are blown away by the breath of God’s Spirit.

In being baptized himself by John, Jesus isn’t confessing that he’s a sinner, but rather that he, the Holy One, has arrived, that he’s here, that God is here, Emmanuel: “God with us”, that he’s present to and united with sinful humanity in every aspect of our lives.

Sr. Joan Chittester, in her book, says: “We are not to be our own law; we are not to be the centers of our own universe; we are not to be unaware, unconcerned, unlistening to all the others...(p. 143) Conversion, in other words, is a willingness to let go, to be led beyond where we are, to where we can be. Conversion is an invitation not to cling to past works, to past relationships, to past circumstances...the idols of our lives...the places where we have passed along the way. Conversion opens us to new questions.” (p. 144)

How this personal conversion is to work itself out in each of our lives, Sr. Joan suggests, is through receptiveness, unboundedness in welcoming others, in hospitality. This has been described as “an act of the recklessly generous heart.” I was telling my confessor just a few days ago how I struggle at times with extending to others what I call “selective generosity”. I suspect that we all grapple with it. Sr. Joan wisely observes that the “question is not whether what we have to give is sufficient for the situation or not...”, but rather “simply whether or not we have anything to give.” (p. 123) St. Benedict, in his Rule, says that anyone who presents themselves is to be welcomed as Christ. That requires a heart without boundaries, as Sr. Joan says, “a place where truth of the oneness of all things shatters all barriers” (p. 128). It means that we must learn “to take our own sense of home to others” (p. 130) realizing that, even in our uncertainty or ineptitude about exactly what to do for another, that we at least do something, that we, in Sr. Joan’s words “go out of ourselves for someone else at least once a day.” (p. 132)   

Advent spurs us on to hope for this reality. A new beginning can happen in your life and mine; we’re not imprisoned in our desolation and helplessness forever. Farmers are well acquainted with the necessity of periodically burning back the stubble of their agricultural fields in order to keep the soil naturally rich. Our life, too, is like a field needing to be burned back through selfless service to one another. Christian living isn’t so much an arrival as it is a search. Jesus is calling you and me during Advent to search, to look at ourselves and our lives with new eyes, and to make changes as needed. And that can, indeed, be frightening. But our hope lies in the reality that Jesus has come to be “God with us”, to be present and at work in our lives, beside us and in us, modeling what servanthood might look like. 

Fr. Gerard Sloyan, whom I was privileged to have as a theology professor at Catholic University of America in Washington, D.C., in 1966, in commenting on this gospel of Luke speaks of John’s practical advice on how to prepare for the coming of the One mightier than ourselves. Fr. Sloyan notes: “Sharing clothes, sharing food. We know we should do it but out of negligence we fail to. Avoiding the crooked little deals (and the crooked big deals) that are a way of life with us. Abjuring violence, the psychic more than the physical. Being content with what we have. A better list for ways of reform than John’s is hard to imagine. All the lies, the bullying, the wanting something for nothing that make us a mean-spirited rather than a free people are there in his brusque replies: ‘Let go of it, give it back, don’t go for it.’” “Bear the fruit of repentance”: conversion, letting go, cultivating hospitality, an unboundaried and generous heart. 

At first glance Advent’s message, perhaps, isn’t a comforting one. It isn’t a warm and cuddly time, but a rather serious and somber reality. Scripture says that the Prince of Peace is “set for the fall and rising of many”. Nevertheless, you and I are given a chance in this brief season to rearrange and reset our priorities, to bear the fruit of genuine repentance, to open ourselves and allow ourselves to let go, to welcome the Holy One of God who can change our hearts in his coming to be among us.

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