Second Sunday of Advent Year A
Last week, His Holiness Pope Francis issued his newest document titled, ‘Evangelii Gaudium’ (the Joy of the Gospel). Normally, magisterial documents, often convoluted in theological jargon, would excite few and gain little attention. But this document is proving to be different. It’s the kind of text that makes you stop, sit up and want to listen more. It’s not only causing ripples but tidal waves and tsunamis in various circles. In his usual communicative style, the document is laced with this Latin American Pope’s flashes of home-spun language which can now fill up an entire lexicon, ambiguous references to various categories of persons that have earned a royal Papal ticking off, and his signature style of inspiring Catholics to have a new vision for the Church. One blogger described it as a ‘bombshell.’ What is clear is that the Pope is calling for a bold self-examination by all Catholics of how consistent are their lives with the Gospel and with the Church's mission. He writes, “The Gospel, radiant with the glory of Christ’s cross, constantly invites us to rejoice.”
But for many, it was not a moment to bring out the champagne and confetti, but an occasion to squirm in one’s hot seat. The reason for this uneasiness is because the path to joy is one that must pass through the gauntlet of repentance and the furnace of conversion. Joy is not a flipping sentiment but the consequence of knowing Christ and allowing oneself to be transformed by Him and his message. The Pope, therefore, has reserved some of his most scathing remarks to those who resist change and those who must be awakened to change. Which group of Catholics is the Pope referring to? Many of his categories were ambiguous - it could refer to anyone, and perhaps that’s deliberate. Well, as the Malay proverb goes, “Siapa makan chili rasa pedas?” (literally, whoever eats chili will taste the hot spiciness; similar to the English idiom, ‘If the hat fits, where it!’)
It’s not difficult to juxtapose the image of our present Pope with that wild-haired, camel-hair attired John the Baptist. John stands at the threshold between the Old and New Testaments, a bridge linking the two. In John we see the culmination of centuries of prophecy, anticipation, and preparation. It may be sheer inspiration, that the Pope’s call to reform and conversion parallels the message of the Baptist. “Prepare a way for the Lord, make his paths straight.” Thus, John provides us a theological and scriptural framework for understand the Pope’s message and the message of Advent.
The first word uttered by the Baptist in today’s gospel sets the stage, the context and the content of his ministry and message, “Repent.” It’s an explosive word. A word which you would not often hear in a political correct world that would buy more into the gospel of inclusion, a gospel that demands nothing from its hearers; neither does it deliver anything new. But John’s primary message was a call to repentance. In fact, ‘repent’ will also be the first spoken word of Jesus in the Gospels of Matthew and Mark.
Some people think that repentance is mostly about feelings, especially feeling sorry for your sin. It is wonderful to feel sorry about your sin, but repent isn’t a “feeling” word (neither is ‘joy’ for that matter). True repentance is something far deeper than simple sentimentality. It is an “action” word. The word "repent," which signifies God's desire and demand of men, is from the Greek work "metanoeo" which means "to think differently, or afterwards." The word signifies a changing of the mind and heart. The Baptist made it clear that preparation for the coming of the Messiah demanded conversion of heart and transformation, a change of direction. The reorientation would require the person to turn away from sin and turn towards Christ. The gospel thus proposes three steps achieve this new direction: Acknowledge your sins, do not presume your relationship and bear fruits that show repentance and conversion.
Acknowledging our sinfulness is the first step to repentance. It seems easy enough to understand the need for this but we still witness the reluctance of many to go for confession. It is not just the shame of baring one’s soul, but also the denial of responsibility for the sins we have committed that obstructs our path to repentance. We suffer from the illusion that we are fine, not too far off the beaten track, that salvation is guaranteed. On the other hand, many Catholics also suffer from a presumed relationship that comes with guaranteed entitlements. Most feel that baptism earns them certain privileges, but no responsibilities ensue there from. Many of the Jews did the same thing – they thought that by coming from the lineage of Abraham, they would be justified by that alone. They relied upon their heritage to save them, it was a false assumption that lulled them into spiritual complacency.
Simply acknowledging our sins and presuming that we are now made children of God through baptism is not enough. It’s a first step, but just not enough. We see in today’s gospel John rebuking the Pharisees and scribes for not living up to their confession. What is more important for repentance is to “produce the appropriate fruit”; we have to produce evidence that we have honestly repented. Just by producing your Baptism Certificate would be insufficient proof of your conversion. There must also be concrete evidence of victory over sin to show for it. Conversion must be apparent in our lifestyle. That is why absolution should not be given when someone stubbornly holds on to a sinful habitual way of life, e.g. adultery. But it is still not enough to stop sinning. One can turn away from one sin and yet turn to another object, person or way of life that becomes our new idol. Ultimately, the fruits must show that we have orientated our whole life to Christ. In this matter, John provides the example of the appropriate fruit. His humility and genuine readiness to step off centre stage is clear in his final witness to Jesus: "I baptise you in water for repentance, but the one who follows me is more powerful than I am, and I am not fit to carry his sandals...” In the gospel of John, he declares that Christ “must increase, while (he) must decrease" (John 3:27-30).
It is clear from the examples of John the Baptist and Pope Francis that the prophetic ministry which calls for repentance and conversion is never a popular one. It is no mere public relations exercise that seeks to hide the true gospel of Jesus in order to make his teachings more palatable, attractive and appealing. If John uses the phrase ‘brood of vipers’ to describe those so caught up in their own self-righteousness to the extent that they saw no need for conversion or change, Pope Francis would match it with words like ‘narcissistic’ and ‘authoritarian elitism.’ To undertake this task, one must be free from himself, free from fear of the opinions of others, free to direct all his energies to the one he came to announce, free for God. In short, it is not enough to preach by words but to provide the gospel with a vivid canvass that is living rather than static – one’s own personal life.
Within the message of St John the Baptist and our Pope, we find the summons to enter into the process of conversion. Pope Francis describes this as entering into the ‘great stream of joy’. He warns Christians that they “must never look like someone who has just come back from a funeral” or “whose lives seem like Lent without Easter”. Christians who heed the call of reform and conversion, are Christians brimming over with joy, and who “wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty and who invite others to a delicious banquet”. And those who have chosen to heed the call of repentance and experience the joy of the gospel, also choose to become the “evangelising Church that comes out of herself” rather than a “worldly Church that lives within herself, of herself, for herself.”