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.
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.
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.