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Repentance: God Beginning a Good Work in Us

This Second Sunday of Advent gives us the figure in today’s Gospel of John the Baptist who came “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” John is the precursor of Jesus – the one who prepares the way for the Messiah. He is described by Luke as a prophet of God – a messenger of God’s word – in line with the Old Testament prophets who called the people to a return to the covenant and gave them hope in time of exile. John is portrayed with reference to Isaiah (and we hear similar language from the prophet Baruch in the first reading) as preparing the people for a new exodus. “Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths. Every valley shall be filled and every mountain and hill shall be made low. The winding roads shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.” When we hear this, it sounds like a huge civil engineering project – some immense work that we have to do to prepare the way for the Lord. But we must remember that the Exodus was God’s saving work – God’s intervention in the life of Israel. God cleared the path through the waters of the Red Sea. He divided the waters in two. The Israelites didn’t make it happen. They had to recognize his presence and follow Him. Baruch says, “God will bring them back… borne aloft in glory as on royal thrones.” Our return is not the result of our efforts but we are carried by the light of another. Baruch continues, “God is leading Israel in joy by the light of his glory, with his mercy and justice for company.” What makes the concept of repentance so daunting for us is when we think that it is our work. We know our weakness and sinfulness, we know the problems we have, but there is no hope for change if we think the answer is, “I just need to work harder at that.” But we say that to ourselves all the time. “I just have to work harder.” What brings about a change of heart and a change of mind is not our own efforts or willing it, but experiencing the mercy of God – seeing the salvation of God in the flesh. We need a merciful presence to accompany us on the journey.

Just like in the Exodus, the way forward, the way out, doesn’t begin with us, with our initiative, rather it begins when Another begins a good work in us. It is the encounter with Another that comes to us in a surprising way that gives us hope and sustains us on the journey. St. Paul, speaking from his own experience of being met by Christ on the road to Damascus – being the recipient of an unexpected mercy, writes to the Philippians, “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus.” Listen to how this experience of encountering the mercy of God changed the heart of this man who before persecuted the followers of Jesus and would even justify killing those who transgressed the law. Now Paul says, “how I long for all of you with the affection of Christ Jesus.” It is the affection of Jesus for Paul that changed Paul. Paul, this great sinner, this man who did bad things in the name of God, was chosen by Christ, wanted by Christ, and loved by Christ. In his confusion and arrogance, Paul was treated with tenderness. Paul was desired by God and invited to share in his mission. We don’t become better and love more unless we meet greater love. We don’t know what is good and of value until we experience ourselves the affection of Christ. Moved by the affection of Christ, Paul prays that the Philippians experience the same love in him “that their love may increase ever more and more in knowledge and every kind of perception, to discern what is of value, so that they may be pure and blameless and filled with the fruit of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ.” The good fruits do not come through their efforts but through Jesus Christ.

I recently heard the testimony of a homeless woman in New York named Ruby whose life was changed when she met a few Catholics who have a mission to the homeless. Ruby not too long ago tried to kill herself by walking into moving traffic. These missionaries were not just giving away sandwiches and socks to the homeless, but they would spend time with them, get to know their stories, and pray with them if they were interested. After a while, Ruby looked forward to these visits, even though these people didn’t give her money. She said that she wanted goodness in her life. Speaking for others in her condition, she said, “They want to be good but don’t know where to start. They are used to being bad.” What woke her up to the good was when these missionaries invited her to join in their mission. She thought at first, “Are these people crazy? They are asking me, a homeless woman, to feed other other homeless people.” From what she experienced from these missionaries, she said, “I want that in my life”. They showed her that love exits and that compassion exists, and this made her want to join in that mission. She wanted to live and to share the mercy that she received, even if she didn’t have much in the way of material things to give. She still had a life to share with others. It was somebody sharing his life with her that gave her hope and changed her for the better. Because of this experience, she no longer wanted to die. She wanted to live and live for God. This experience of the affection of Christ is what saved her. That is why charity is so much more than simply writing a check or providing a service for free. Charity sees the good in the other, desires the good for the other, and gives or shares one’s life with the other. Charity invites another to share in the life of Jesus – this desire to give of oneself and be with others. The purpose of charity is not to fix another’s problems but to participate in the life of Jesus.

This Advent, as we hear the call to repentance, we must be reminded that God has come and that he is with us. What changes our life is recognizing the presence of God with us. Only seeing a good makes us desire more good and recognize what is of true value in life. His presence makes straight the path for us. Let’s ask for the grace to recognize Him and to long for each other with the affection of Christ Jesus. It is the love of Christ that we meet that gives us light and carries us out to a new and glorious life.

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