Today we hear once again the impatient voice of John the Baptist urging us to change so that we may be worthy to receive the Lord as he continues to come into our world. Crooked ways must be made straight; bad habits need to be corrected; conversion must continue. This message comes straight from God and that is why John proclaims it in the desert—a place that has always been associated with divine mystery and freedom. (See how this is portrayed in the relationship between Ahab and Elijah: 1 Kings 18:7ff). Human control has no place in the symbolic wilderness of divine freedom.
John wears the garments that identify him with the great prophet Elijah. Just as Elijah challenged the sinful king Ahab, so does John demand a break with a past of sinful human control to make room for a future where God’s will is honored and obeyed. This will not be easy. And so John uses very strong language to scold those who are not interested in change that goes deeper than appearances. True conversion and true readiness for the coming of Jesus requires a conversion that touches our hearts and our deepest values.
God very much wants to come to us. We also want to receive him. However, it is usually only on our own terms. We wish to remain attached to habits and attitudes, which are unworthy of us and hurtful to others. Like St. Augustine, we are inclined to say, “Change me, Lord…but not yet.” Such hesitation is most unfortunate because an unqualified reception of the Lord can provide far more happiness and peace than all the objects of our sinful attachments.
What is called for is repentance and we must be careful not to confuse that with remorse. Remorse is simply a temporary regret about our unworthy behavior. It usually lasts a very short time and then we return to our old habits. By contrast, repentance means that we have found something better and more promising than our sinfulness. This discovery is the love and goodness of God. If we could only realize how much God loves us, we would be able to resist every temptation. We make this discovery primarily through earnest prayer and a deep yearning to become better persons.
Today’s gospel urges us to make room in our hearts for the love of God, not as a theoretical fact or on someone else’s word, but in our own experience. The Eucharist reminds us every Sunday that God loves us and has given his only Son to die for us. This means that we are very precious in God’s sight. This also means that God is more than ready to enter our hearts and to lead us to true repentance.
We are asked to put aside selfish and defensive behavior so that God’s love can give us the freedom to be what God wants us to be—confident and responsible human beings. In this regard, we are reminded of the words of the Book of Revelation: “Behold! I stand at the door and knock. If anyone hears my voice and opens the door, [then] I will enter his house and dine with him, and he with me.” (3:20) This readiness of the Lord to become our best friend is true at all times, but never more so than in the season of Advent.
Demetrius R. Dumm, O.S.B.