Year A: Second Sunday of Advent
Changing the Heart and Mind for new Action
Matthew 3: 1-12
In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: “A voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.’”
John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins. When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
- Does Advent take on any new or deeper spiritual meaning for you each year, or is it becoming a tired tradition where you comply ritually but your heart is untouched? What would bring more life to the season of Advent? Explain what might be missing for you. A feeling of …?
- Baptism is a way of renewal, of dying to a previous life and emerging to a new life. As this year comes to a close and a new year begins, what do you hope to leave behind or “die to”? And, what “new life” do you hope to be emerging to? What forms of repentance/metanoia are you looking to make?
- In what ways might your heart be most open to God this Advent?
Repent and Metanoia: Often used together but slightly different.
Repent: a repenting or being penitent; feelings of sorrow, especially for wrongdoing; compunction; contrition; remorse. Turning from self back to God.
Metanoia: a transformative change of heart and mind especially: a spiritual conversion.
Both words imply an “about face” in replacing one set of behaviors for another. Hopefully the heart and our intentions catch up with our new actions. But, “feeling ready” is not necessary to make change happen!
Announcing the Coming Savior
Sr. Mary M. McGlone CSJ
John the Baptist takes center stage in the Second Week of Advent. Matthew portrays him as a prophet’s prophet. Although Luke presents him as son of Elizabeth and Zechariah, Matthew has him “appear” in the desert as if out of nowhere other than from God’s eternal plan. John is as unlike his ordinary contemporaries as Jesus will be like them. Between them they almost depict the contrast between belief in a fearsome, punishing image of God and the shepherd of lost sheep. John knows he is not the centerpiece of his day, but he also knows that he plays a vital role.
John’s mission was to gear the people up, to remind them of how all the promises of old assured them that the broken world they knew was neither the will of God nor was it definitive. Relying on his religious traditions, John interpreted his times and preached that God would soon intervene, but the people had to be ready if they were to be a part of what God was about to do in their midst.
John’s baptism was the sign of their preparation. It was a proclamation of each one’s desire for metanoia. John stirred up the hearts of his people, reminding them that the shallowness of their lives and the institutional injustice of their society was sin and therefore both unnecessary and vincible. John’s mission was to drive home the message that the way things were was not the only possibility, that God had something much better in mind.
John’s apocalyptic images were geared to explode every sluggish mindset. He wasn’t saying that there was no good in his society. There were fruit-bearing trees, and there was wheat as well as chaff, but it was time for a major shakeup. John wanted each person to judge her or his own life, sifting weed from grain and then go into the water to come out renewed and ready for what was to come.
This is a hard time of year to proclaim the prophetic message of metanoia. It’s a tougher sell than is typically intended with “Let’s put Christ back in Christmas” campaigns. That’s why we need John the Baptists to force us to ask “Is this all there is?” While the metanoia message may seem to be a downer in the holidays, it is truly the only way to get at the meaning of the season.
John the Baptizer will always seem to be a voice crying out in the wilderness; it’s the task of today’s prophets to remind others that too much of this world is a wilderness of our own creation, and that’s precisely why we can hope for a change.
Ultimately, because we believe in God, hope is the message of the day. Today’s loudest voice in the wilderness may well be Pope Francis who in “Laudato Si’, on Care for Our Common Home” invites us to pray:
Triune God, wondrous community of infinite love … Awaken our praise and thankfulness for every being that you have made. Give us the grace to feel profoundly joined to everything that is … God of love, show us our place in this world as channels of your love … O Lord, seize us with your power and light, help us to protect all life, to prepare for a better future, for the coming of your Kingdom of justice, peace, love and beauty. (#246)
Leading the Heart
So, I will allure her; I will lead her into the desert and speak to her heart. (Hos 2:16; NAB)
I have translated this, “The desert will lead you to your heart where I shall speak.” The heart is the material pump of the body, the physical muscle that keeps blood flowing and the body alive. In biblical theology it becomes a metaphor for the spiritual center of the person. The ‘heart” is a space of consciousness where the person is both open to God and ready to act on that openness. It keeps spiritual life flowing and the spiritual person alive. To say, “the heart is hard,” is to imply the person is not in conscious contact with God and consequently does not act out of that awareness. There is no flow. To say, “the heart is on fire,” is to imply the person is in conscious contact with God and is acting out of that awareness. There is flow. It is the heart where the deepest contact with both God and the world is made.
But how do we get to the heart? How do we allow consciousness to rest in the spiritual center of our being?
The desert will lead us there. In particular, the person who lives in the desert will lead us there. But be warned. His tactics are rigorous. The heart is camouflaged by self-deceptions, and we are skilled in not looking at these most comforting delusions. But the voice crying in the wilderness is determined to make us look. There is something infinitely better than our present way of deception. But we will not be open to it until we acknowledge and let go of the avoiding strategies of the mind. Repentance is the path.
Repentance begins by entering the desert. The desert means “off on our own,” far from the madding crowd. Until we enter into solitude and do some inner work, we are always a one-sided creation of other people. We are living a life we have not investigated and claimed. It may be a safe life, a well-respected life, and a well-rewarded life, but it is not our life. We need to purify and simplify, to come back to what is essential, and to rethink where we have been and where we are going. We need to uncover the core desires that drive us and evaluate them.
A first step on the path to the heart is: “Who taught us to flee from the wrath that is to come?” Who taught us to act only as a reaction to the possibility of injury? Why do we only do things to protect ourselves? In fact, we may have come to the desert in this half-hearted position. We are not seeking authentic living, but only some external compliance that may keep us from harm. But heart action is not
reactive behavior to the dangers of life. Heart action is the overflow of inner fullness. But we will not reach the heart until we realize how blindly we are attached to the reactive ego.
The path to the heart continues with the injunction, “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘There is something special about us that God loves and this exempts us from this painful process of honest appraisal.'” In other words, we deceive ourselves. We identify with some aspect of “who we are” that we think will spare us. Then we market that delusion to ourselves and to others. The hard word of the heart leader insists that what God loves is this painful process. For it is through this process of “disidentifying” with our “self-righteousness’ that we open to the heart. The open heart receives God’s life and conveys it into the world.
When we arrive at the heart, we will know the truth of loving both God and neighbor. Until we arrive there, we are deluded. We live in what Reb Menahem Nendle of Korzk, known as the Kotzker, called a world of phantoms—false perceptions we treat as real. The story is told of the Kotzker:
One day he and Reb Hirsh of Tomashov came to bridge where several women began throwing stones at them.
“Have no fear,” said the Kotzker. ‘They are not real women, nor are there stones real. They are mere phantoms.
Reb Hirsh was silent for a moment, then asked, “Might we not be phantoms too?
No,” came the Kotzker’s answer, “as long as we have at some time had the genuine urge to repent.” (Abraham Joshua Heschel, A Passion for Truth [New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1973])
The “genuine urge to repent” is an expression of our desire to be real, to be conscious of our ultimate grounding and live out of that grounding. Why did the people come to John and submit to his harsh words and tactics?
Why do we continue to journey to his desert? We sense the promise in repentance, the promise to move beyond half-heartedness and delusion, the promise to be real, the promise that will lead us to our heart.
Spiritual Commentaries and Teachings are excerpted from The Spiritual Wisdom of the Gospels for Christian Preachers and Teachers by John Shea © 2004 by Order of Saint Benedict. Published by Liturgical Press, Collegeville, Minnesota. Used with permission.