One day, a man asked his friend, “What were you before? The friend said, “A sinner.” Then he was asked, “What are you now?’ “ The friend responded, “A sinner.” “What’s the difference?” The friend answered, “Before, I was a sinner running after sin. But now I am sinner running away from sin.”
We will always be sinners in need of conversion and repentance – until we die. But the real question is: “Are we sinners who are running after sin or sinners who are running away from sin?” Or better, “Are we sinners who are trying to turn more and more to God and to turn more and more away from sin?”
On this Second Sunday of Advent, we hear the prophet John the Baptist proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. This is precisely what John the Baptist is asking us to do as we continue to prepare for the commemoration of the birth of Jesus.
Immediately, after the mention of some political and religious leaders, the gospel narrates that the Word of God came to John in the wilderness. In the midst of power, prestige and wealth represented by these leaders, the Word of God came to be addressed to the poor and ascetic prophet John the Baptist. The Word of God was heard not in Rome – the seat of imperial power; not in Jerusalem – the most important city for the Jewish people; not in a palace or in any other grandiose place. John the Baptist heard the Word of God in the desert.
In the Bible the desert is a place of struggle between God and Satan, a place of confrontation between good and evil in the heart of the person in the experience of solitude, barrenness, nakedness, vulnerability and of the challenge to put one’s complete dependence on God. While John the Baptist heard the Word of God in the desert – both in its literal sense of a physical place of the desert and in its symbolic meaning referring to the heart of the person – the main locus of the struggle between God and Satan, between good and evil, in our case it must be more of its symbolic meaning. We need to hear the Word of God in the depths of our hearts for it is from there where we must respond to it and where we truly surrender ourselves to God. Our hearts must really be receptive dwelling places for God and God’s Word.
John the Baptist invited the people to submit themselves to baptism as an expression of this repentance, of a return to God and a turning away from sin. As Christians, we have already signified this. We have already been baptized into Christ. We have already been claimed for Christ. We already died to sin and must truly continued to do this to signify our being followers of the Lord and children of God.
The Holy Father, in opening the Year of Faith on October 11, has said: “The Year of Faith… is a summons to an authentic and renewed conversion to the Lord, the one Saviour of the world.”
At baptism, we renounced Satan, sin and deeds of darkness and professed our faith in the Trine God and in God’s ways. But have we really been faithful to these baptismal vows? Have we really been Christians in deeds and in the way we live authentic Christ-like lives and not only in name? John the Baptist, as part of our preparations for Christmas, invites us to return to our baptismal vows and to be really faithful to them and to God.
To prepare the way for the Lord, John the Baptist speaks of the mountains that need to be flattened, valleys which have to be filled in, crooked ways which have to be made straight, rough roads which have to be smoothed.
In response to the Advent challenge we need to look more into the landscape of the human heart. We must hear during this Season of Advent John’s call to have an interior change of heart, to change our lives and our ways. Are there areas in our lives that need to be straightened or flattened because these have been hindering us in truly welcoming Jesus in our hearts and in our lives and in surrendering our lives to God and to his ways and becoming better Christians and children of God?
But the demand of conversion is not only personal; it is also communal, societal and structural. As a people, we continue to suffer in many ways because of the sins of divisiveness, inequality, graft and corruption, ecological neglect and many others. The newspapers tell us that the recent tragedy in Mindanao, just like many tragedies in the past, was not only due to nature; it was also largely manmade. Illegal logging and neglect of geohazard warnings have been mentioned as two of the causes. We indeed need to change as individuals, as communities and as a people.
But again, we must start somewhere. How do we start? We start by truly allowing God to love us even in a most unexpected way. Then when this happens, we can truly be changed people.
The Jesuit John Powell, in his book Unconditional Love, tells a true to life story about Tommy, a very strange student in his theology class who turned out to be an theist. In class, according to Fr. Powell, he was a pain in the neck for he was always objecting and whining about the possibility of an unconditionally loving God.
One day, Tommy approached Fr. Powell and asked in a cynical tone: “Do you think I’ll ever find God.”
Fr. Tom decided to apply a shock therapy by giving an emphatic “NO.”
Tommy responded to Fr. Powell: “Oh, I though that was the product you were pushing.”
Fr. Powell, in response to Tommy, said: “But He will find you.”
Fr. Powell later learned that Tommy had graduated. Then he received a sad news that he was suffering with terminal cancer.
Then one day, Tommy appeared in the office of Fr. Powell. After some pleasantries, Fr. Powell asked Tommy: “What’s it like to be only twenty-four and dying?”
Tommy said it could be worse – like being fifty and having no values or ideals, like being fifty and thinking that booze, seducing women, and making money are the real ‘biggies’ in life.”
Tommy then reminded Fr. Powell of that incident when he told him, “But he will find you.” Tommy said that when he got to know about his cancer, he started to look for God. And as his illness became more serious, he sought God even more intensely. But nothing happened, according to him.
Then one day, he remembered what Fr. Powell had told them in class: “The essential sadness is to go through life without loving. But it would be almost equally sad to go through life and leave this world without ever telling those you loved that you had loved them.” So Tommy began with the hardest one: his Dad with whom he did not have a good relationship. His Dad was reading the newspaper when he approached him.”
“Dad, I love you. I just wanted you to know that,” Tommy told his Dad.
“The newspaper fluttered to the floor. Then his Dad did two things Tommy could never remember him ever doing before. He cried and he hugged me.
And they talked all night. Tommy said it felt so good to be close to his father, to see his tears, to feel his hug, to hear him say that he loved him too.” Then, he did the same to his mother and little brother, which was easier. They too cried with him and they hugged each other.
Tommy said he felt sorry about one thing: that he had waited so long for such opportunities of really being close to his family, of showing his love for them.
Then, Tommy said, “Then, one day I turned around and God was there. Apparently God does things in his own way and at his own hour. But the important thing is that he was there. He found me. He found me even after I stopped looking for him.”
Tommy eventually died of cancer. But he found God before he died. He found God because he allowed God to find him. He allowed God to find him by loving. Someone said, “When one loves, he touches the face of God.”
This is the deeper meaning of conversion: more than finding God, it is allowing God to find us – sometimes in a most unexpected way.