The Grace of Conversion
(Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12.)
Introduction to Mass:
In the gospel for the Mass today John the Baptist summons people to repentance in fierce and threatening language, the typical language of the prophets. Saint Paul, in the second reading, is a bit milder. He tells his community not to give up hope that God will help them if they turn to him.
The prayer over the Advent wreath follows (see homily for 1st Sunday in Advent) and two candles on the wreath are lit.
Hope and Despair
Last Sunday I was trying to suggest that the over-all theme of the Advent Season and the Advent liturgy is hope.
Almost without exception every human effort to tackle the causes of suffering or unhappiness, in our personal lives or on a larger, wider scale, has to be inspired by some kind of hopeful vision, by the conviction that change is possible, improvement is possible. An outlook or a philosophy of despair can never produce that kind of inspiration. And of course men and women who become disillusioned with life for some reason also lose the will and the energy to do anything to bring about any change for the better.
For us that kind of attitude is understandable, but wrong. For us, basing our convictions on what the Bible tells us about God keeping his promises, Christian faith adds something specific, something distinctive.
For one thing, as I was also saying last week, in the last analysis our Christian hope points us beyond this life. The weight of all the evil and sin in the world can't stop God's Reign from coming. Christ's resurrection was the first sign of that.
But on another level, an attitude of hope is a part of every Christian's outlook on life now, in the present. At least, it should be a part.
For individuals who are disillusioned or despairing, human nature and human behaviour will never change. To them, human beings seem corrupt and irreformable, and self-interest can't be overcome.
The outlook of the gospel message, on the other hand, is not only that human beings can change, but that they must change. We're not fossilised into unchangeable attitudes and selfish patterns of behaviour. When people open themselves to God's influence, their selfish motives and self-centred emotions give way to service and love of others. In religious language, they start to become holy - they start to resemble God. And that's a hopeful prospect. That's 'Good News'.
The language of rebuke
How does that line of thinking fit in with the gospel today?
When John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea he was reviving a tradition of preaching based on the preaching of the Old Testament prophets. This kind of preaching hadn't been heard for centuries. The language of the prophets was in large part the language of rebuke. It was harsh, condemnatory language, denouncing the community's lack of faith, condemning any kind of hypocrisy or bogus spirituality, social injustice or exploitation in the economic field.
John the Baptist adopted this abrasive and threatening style of preaching: 'Repent!' he says. 'Brood of vipers...Who warned you to flee from the retribution that is coming...The axe is already laid to the roots of the tree'...And so on. He just pours out this angry, contemptuous language, especially, it appears, on the religious leaders - significantly enough, no doubt.
So the Bible - and especially the prophetic tradition - is under no illusions about the seamy side of human nature. But when the Bible describes or exposes this side of human nature, it's not from the standpoint of disillusion or despair.
It's with the intention of inviting conversion, bringing about a kind of awakening, raising us out of selfish motives and responses.
Conversion: sudden and gradual
Traditionally, the best-known examples of religious conversion are instances of sudden and dramatic conversion. In the history of the Church a certain kind of conversion-story has always been popular, in which men and women who were (usually) rich and well-educated, but spiritually none-too advanced, experience a sudden conversion to God and then spent the rest of their life in a monastery or working as missionaries of some kind.
Today we occasionally hear the modern version of these stories: top-ranking executives who have a crisis in their life, a dramatic encounter with God, and go off to spend the rest of their life working with the poor in the third world. Of course I'm not ridiculing these occurrences. Some people have experienced genuine conversion in this way.
But I would say that for most people - and especially for those of us who are already believers in Christ - conversion and repentance has to mean something a bit less sensational, something a lot more gradual and long-term. For most of us, our personality and our temperament don't just change overnight. The influence that God has on us, that brings about our conversion, usually works very slowly.
The way that God works on us is that first of all there's a kind of dawning or a realisation - there's a questioning of the way we think and act. The questioning leads gradually to a shift in our attitudes and values and our emotional reactions to things. Then that shift takes shape in a concrete way. We start doing things differently. Some of our activities and ways of doing things are dropped.
Most of all, I would say, we become more understanding towards other people, treating them with greater respect and generosity. We begin to see them less in terms of how they might be useful to us, which previously we might have done even unconsciously. Once we notice that we've acted in that way, we feel a pressure to stop. That's what the process of conversion means.
Our hope for the 'grace of conversion'
In the second reading, it seems to me, Saint Paul connects the idea of being patient about the slow and gradual way that God has an impact on us with the attitude of hope.
'Everything that was written in the Scriptures,' he says, 'was meant to teach us something about hope from the examples of how people who did not give up were helped by God'.
Saint Paul's language about hope and not giving up is a lot milder that John the Baptist's fiery talk about repentance, but the idea behind what both of them are saying is the same: if we turn to God, and persist in turning to him, God brings us to the full development of our potential as human beings.
In the process, though, the ideas we might have had about realising our potential, or the ideas we might have had about what would lead to our fulfilment, change.
Eventually we see that it doesn't lie in getting exactly what we want and 'having it all' as the saying goes. Rather we begin to find fulfilment in escaping from the obsession with ourselves. We begin to find it the extent of our compassion and forgiveness towards other people, the extent of our dedicated service to the needs of others.
It's this huge shift or 'turning-around' in our notions about what our life should consist of that the Bible is referring to when it talks about 'repentance'. And as John the Baptist says, it's a matter of producing the appropriate fruit. Real conversion to God always takes shape in concrete reality, not only at the level of words. The proof that God's grace has actually touched us lies in the extent to which our character begins to radiate out in concern and love for those around us.
An exercise in hope and repentance
To round off maybe I could suggest a sort of practical exercise, or more of a reflection, which we could make about ourselves, which to my mind is a reflection on Christian repentance and Christian hope in our own lives. The exercise is to ask ourselves the following questions:
- what aspects of myself do I hope that God will change, in the course of my live from this point onwards?
- how would I say that I have changed for the better up till now, and in what ways have I resisted changing things about myself up until now?
Those aren't difficult questions to answer honestly to ourselves. But they are a way of taking the message of today's Scripture readings seriously. They're a way of finding out whether we do genuinely have an attitude of hope that God will influence us and help us, or whether we've given in to a kind of subtle despair - more a sense of weariness about ourselves - that we're past the point of changing in any radical way. In which case the readings for today's Mass are even more timely for us than they might be otherwise.