We continue in our preparations for the great feast of Christmas, busying our selves with getting our houses decorated, buying gifts, organizing parties and menus. And annually we hear proclaimed at Mass the readings and prayers which remind us that this indeed is a time of preparation, the season of Advent – but often we become so caught up in the preparation for the great feast, that we miss or skip over the period of preparation.
It’s as if we are taking a journey, and jump from the preparation directly to the destination; and if we were able to do that, we might find that when we arrive at our destination, there are some things that we forgot to pack, or some sights and signs that we missed along the way that were crucial to the entire experience
We hear it time and again, year after year; “we prepare during Advent for the arrival of Jesus at Christmas”. On one level we are preparing to celebrate a period in human history when God directly intervened in human affairs to bring us closer to Him. On a deeper level though, this season gives us an opportunity to consciously prepare our hearts to welcome Christ into them in a more personal and intimate way; to be ready to meet and receive Him each and every day, at any time.
And it is quite difficult to welcome Him into a space that is crowded with wants and desires, worries and frustrations, fears or anxiety – it is just as difficult for Him to enter a space that is filled with pre-conceived notions of our own ‘righteousness’ or our own ‘worthiness’ as if we are owed His presence within us as another ‘entitlement’.
This Sunday’s particular passage from the Gospel of St. Matthew is loaded with depth and meaning concerning that idea of a crowded heart, and the proper disposition of those who would turn to God, who desire to live a life of conversion.
Conversion, St. Augustine tells us, is a deliberate, intentional, continuous orienting or turning of ourselves towards God – that includes our words, our actions, our thoughts, but mainly our hearts.
True conversion requires true repentance.
To repent is not just simply a matter of feeling a bit of sorrow at having done something wrong or bad. True repentance is an admission that in our own relationship with God we have fallen short of that closeness that we were all created for. True repentance is admitting that there are things we have done or attitudes we have that keep us from that deeper union with our God, a God who loved us into existence and who waits to welcome us back into union; in the same way that we wait for the arrival of Christ in our hearts. True repentance is based on a desire to live out the two great commandments – to love God with our whole being and to love our neighbour as ourselves.
The baptism in this passage administered by St. John was one of repentance (not to be confused with the baptism that Jesus will initiate, a baptism of adoption as a child of God, a new creation, wiping clean original sin)
This repentance was a public admission that a person was not in ‘right relationship’ with God, and desired to turn from their weakness, their broken-ness and turn towards God, to seek His face. But the external symbolism of the ritual had to be a reflection of the inner reality that the person truly desired to move closer to God, and was prepared to change from within.
And this is where we see our eyes drawn to the point in this episode where the Gospel says some Pharisees and Sadducees, religious leaders, also come forward for baptism; but they seem to come separate from the rest of the people who have come to profess they are ‘sinners’, apart from the people who apparently are conscious of their ‘separation’ from God in their hearts.
St. John the Baptist is very harsh in his remarks to these leaders.
He calls them a ‘brood of vipers’ and goes on further to criticize those who claim their salvation is based simply on being a descendent of Abraham or of the Patriarchs.
It’s not sufficient for someone to say, well, I belong to this group or that group, and based simply on that membership, I’m good; salvation is assured to me – I’m in right relationship because of the people who have gone before me.
This promotes complacency and glorifies mediocrity; God loves us wholeheartedly, and asks that we return that love in kind, not in some mediocre way.
The stories that are handed down to us and the work of scholars seems to indicate that some groups of Pharisees and Sadducees were not really concerned with social justice for the poor and marginalized. They were only concerned with social justice as it applied to them. John wasn’t criticizing them for coming for baptism – he was apparently criticizing their lack of concern with justice for all people; in essence, he was telling them if you want to come forward, come – but give some evidence by your works that you mean to reform your ways.
John takes particular aim at this attitude ‘we have Abraham for our father’. He tells the all of those listening,” do not presume to say and believe that is enough.” Feed the hungry, care for the poor and the weak, house the homeless, clothe the naked, uphold the suffering and oppressed; don’t simply come to participate in a ritual for outward appearances and go back to your old ways.
The Messiah is coming. He will know His own. And He will know them by their hearts and their actions. And John speaks these words with a sense of urgency, with passion.
If we mean to enter into true conversion, true repentance, St. John says, then come to the waters. But don’t do this for show, or to pretend to be righteous; change your life; change your attitude; these words from the Gospel are urgent words, and we should all hear them and read them and share them with great passion.
We all need to look at ourselves to see if we are bearing good fruit. We cannot be complacent. We cannot be satisfied with the status quo; we need to be continually examining our own lives and relationship with God to see if we are bearing good fruit, and if not, then we need to ask ourselves what it is that preventing us from bearing good fruit.
But we need to be very honest with ourselves – sometimes even as harsh as the Baptist was when we examine our own conscience. Sometimes we need to identify our own ‘brood of vipers’ within.
The Palestine Viper is a particular snake in the Golan Heights region of Palestine. It is the most dangerous snake in the Middle East, highly venomous; but it is not that common. However, this particular viper is often confused with other snakes which are quite harmless, non-poisonous, and only eat insects or rodents.
The secret here is in knowing that in the middle of all of these harmless, even helpful creatures, there is something quite deadly.
There is nothing more dangerous than something very harmful blending in with the harmless, so that its presence is unknown until it is too late.
An attitude of complacency toward God or even rationalizing that just because we call ourselves Christians means we are ‘good to go’ with God can be very harmful; without deeply examining ourselves and our attitudes, to see how close we are , or how distant we are from that right relationship with God.
We need to have a sense of urgency, in that desire to grow closer to God, especially during this Advent season; we need to honestly reflect on our relationship with God, as individuals and as a people. We need to take time to consider what attitudes we might need to remove, or introduce into our hearts to prepare that place for the coming Messiah.
We can’t skip over this preparation; we need to be ready to meet Christ whenever and wherever He comes to us.
Praised be Jesus Christ, now and forever!