Being awakened to a love that calls us, believes in us, and accompanies us on the journey…
Last night my family gathered at my aunt’s house for the traditional Italian “7 fishes dinner”. We usually do it a week or so before Christmas eve because it is hard for all the families to get together on Christmas eve. The last time I saw my Aunt was Thanksgiving. My Aunt, who is 60, looked really good – it was noticeable that she lost some weight since the last time I saw her. I knew she started running about a month before Thanksgiving and asked her if running was how she lost the weight. She has been going to the gym for years, but about a year ago, she got a new personal trainer. Her former trainer was good, but the new one was different. He was always challenging her to do things that she didn’t like to do or didn’t think she could do, like running. “You know I hate to run” she would say. “Just do it. You can do it.” He would give her a challenge. “Run a half lap then walk the rest of the lap.” Next time it would be 3/4 of a lap of running. A month before Thanksgiving, he said, “I think you are ready to run a 5K.” “3.1 miles non- stop. I can’t do that.” “Yes you can.” My Aunt said, “I don’t know anybody who’s a runner who would run with me, and I’m not going to do it myself.” The trainer said to her surprise, “I’ll run with you.” On Thanksgiving, she completed her first 5K, and the trainer ran with her every step of the way. When she was hurting and didn’t think she could make it, he encouraged her. “Almost there. Keep on going. One step at a time. One foot in front of another.” His presence and belief in her gave her the strength to do what she thought was impossible. He also suggested small changes in her diet – things to avoid, things to limit, and not to eat after a certain time of day. She wanted to stay in shape and work out, but she needed someone to tell her what she should do in order to get the result she desired. She said it is because of this trainer and the results she’s seen that she looks forward to going to the gym. She is interested in hearing what new challenge he has for her. And she is motivated to respond to the challenge.
John the Baptist’s call to repentance – his call to produce good fruits or be metaphorically “cut down and thrown in the fire” caught the attention of folks from all walks of life. They were roused from complacency and given a desire to change, but they all had the same response: “What should we do?” John’s advice is very basic and seems like common sense, but to someone who’s life was built on the opposite, what John was exhorting them to do would mean a serious change of lifestyle – something seemingly impossible. For example, the tax collectors made their living by collecting more than what was prescribed. John can tell them what to do, but that is not enough. He’s aroused their expectation – awakened them to their need to be better, but what they desire cannot be fulfilled by him. His words and instruction are not enough to change them. They need someone mightier to come. They need to be baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire. It is only God’s love – being immersed in God’s love – that will give them the energy to change. Our conversion is not the result of our efforts or simply willing it, but it is a free response from the heart when we recognize God’s loving presence in our midst. We need a love that calls us, believes in us, and accompanies us on the journey. As the psalm today says, “My strength and my courage is the Lord.” The Lord is near. He is always challenging us – choosing us for something beyond our capabilities, but we won’t experience the freedom of this new life unless we freely say “yes” to the calling, grateful that he has shown this preference for me and is willing to accompany me on the journey. It is like the chief tax collector who was seeking to see Jesus and was surprised when Jesus stops and calls him by name and says, “today I must stay in your house.” Zacchaeus comes down quickly from the tree and welcomes him in with joy. He says to Jesus, “Behold, half of my possessions, Lord, I shall give to the poor, and if I have extorted anything from anyone I shall repay it four times over.” What John recommends is accomplished to an even greater degree when someone accepts and welcomes the love of Jesus. And it is done with joy.
Let us not have fear or anxiety when we are called to something that we think is impossible for us or will require a change that is beyond our power. The fact of that call is a sign of the Lord’s nearness. The fact that we want to change is a sign of his nearness. Ask God for the grace to do it. As St. Paul says, “by prayer and petition, with thanksgiving” (that God has called you), “make your request known to God.” Prayer opens the door for him to enter. We need the “fire in the belly” to experience the results we desire, so let’s let Jesus immerse us in his love by welcoming him and the Holy Spirit into our hearts. What greater peace and joy than to know the nearness of the Lord by the unforeseen and unforeseeable change that he works in us.