We continue along the path of waiting in expectation. Within this expectation there is a call to repentance. The first reading highlights the consequence of sin for which Israel is exiled but it does not end there. Instead, it ends with a promise of redemption. It is this waiting for salvation that the Gospel brings to fore the last Prophet of the Old Testament.
Thus, the 2nd Sunday of Advent is dedicated to the role that John the Baptist played in the drama of salvation. He is the voice in the wilderness calling us to prepare the way for the coming of the Saviour, the one who will Redeem us. Both these words are loaded. Even though they describe the mission of Jesus Christ, they are words that highlight who we are.
We are at the centre of God’s salvific mission. We are the reason for the redemptive endeavour of the Second Person of the Trinity. Jesus comes to save us and by His death and resurrection, we have been ransomed from a death that is eternal.
What does that mean to us?
Firstly, that we want to be saved. Like everything about Advent, sure we want to be saved but, we want it on our terms. It is natural that we want to move according to our pace. St Augustine himself said this when he felt the tugging of conversion in his heart, “Lord make chaste and celibate, but not yet”! More than the experience of St Augustine, perhaps the death-bed conversion is what many would like since it promises the best of both worlds. Have it all now and at the end, gain heaven by the skin of one’s teeth. This resonates with us as having it good is so much more exciting than being good. But if you ask the people who have damaged their physical health, they will tell you that once the damage is done, the road to full recovery can never be achieved. Advent, if you take away the urgency of carolling, shopping, feasting, you might just have enough time and space to lean back and reflect on this invitation to repentance.
The beauty of the liturgical calendar is its cyclical nature. Conversion is an ongoing process whereby we need to be converted time and again. It is who we are. Thus we are given many chances by God through the seasons to re-turn or re-orientate our hearts to God. The lure of the world is too much for our frail spirits as we get easily distracted. Given the experience that once you have seen something you cannot “unsee” it, or that a mistake made cannot be “unmade”, it is better to heed the call of John the Baptist sooner rather than later. He spoke in terms of the valleys that needed to be filled and the hills to be levelled—perhaps a figurative reference to the sins that mark our lives—sins that caused rupture in our relationships or sins that arose out of our selfish ego. The seriousness we give to repentance is a measure of the depth of our need for salvation. In other words, the more keenly one feels the need for redemption, the more one might go the extra mile in changing.
Secondly, if we accept and eagerly desire redemption, the reading from St Paul allows us to see how each one, each converted individual can become clay for God, the craftsman par excellence, to shape into a community. St Paul describes it as the completed work of God which for us should become our prayer and our hope. If we desire it, we must pray for it. The Collect expresses this hope: “May no earthly undertaking hinder those who set out in haste to meet your Son”. Carolling or shopping are two good examples of earthly undertakings. They are good but if they are the main preoccupations this Advent, then, they are activities that hinder our hastening to meet the Christ. In the same reading, St Paul highlights the necessity for an improved knowledge and deepened perception to recognise what is best for us. This means asking questions about what will lead us to or away from God. It is an examination of conscience that is characteristic of our penitential season. What in our lives leaves us consoled or desolated? Whenever there is consolation, when we are close to God, the fruit is an increased in hope, faith and charity.
An increase of love for each other, which for St Paul, is the hallmark of Christianity allows us to appreciate the function that John the Baptist played. Central though he may have been, his main task was never not self-referential. His sole purpose was to point to the coming Saviour and Redeemer. How is that role to be seen in our lives? Our Advent preparation apart from the call of repentance is also framed by this question: “How well do we love each other?”. Imagine this remark made of the first Christians: “See how they love each other” applying to us?
Conversion to God will always flow into a conversion towards others. Advent’s repentance is not narrowly defined as personal. It is deeply communitarian. It is easy to love others without loving God. Humanitarians do that—they have a genuine love for humanity and that is good. But, what is impossible is to love God without loving others. If a person claims that he loves God but hates his neighbour, that cannot be counted as love for God. In the Last Judgement of Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus gave this warning that those who call “Lord, Lord” are not automatically assured of heaven. If you love God, it means you necessarily love others.
The conversion of Advent that we are invited to is a conversion that makes room for God and others. In a world which is god-absent, god-hungry and god-forgetting, there is such a great need for it to be reminded of who God is. If John the Baptist pointed to the coming Saviour and Redeemer, then our love for each other will perform the same function, that is, to point to the God who has never abandoned us. Repentance lead us in that direction by first converting our hearts to God and then by channeling that conversion into a genuine love for our neighbours. That way, our lives will be like John the Baptist, pointing towards the Saviour and Redeemer whose Second Coming the world is longing for.