Conversion is a journey towards who we really are before the Lord, to our authentic identity in God: Sinful yet Beloved!
The German Jesuit priest Fr. Alfred Delp, who wrote powerful meditations from prison on “the spiritual meaning and lessons of Advent” before being martyred by the Nazis in a Nazi death camp in 1945, said that it is only when we experience being shaken and awaken that we begin to become capable of Advent. The experience of being shaken to awakening makes us realize that “all of life is Advent,” a journey towards encountering God.
On this Second Sunday of Advent, the Old Testament prophet Isaiah and John the Baptist are our Advent figures who try to shake us to conversion in preparation for the coming of the Lord. John’s call to conversion is based on an earlier summons made by Isaiah “to prepare the way of the Lord.” However, Isaiah’s original line, “A herald’s voice that cries: in the desert prepare the way,” is changed to “A herald’s voice that cries in the desert: prepare the way,” making John the voice of God calling us into the desert of conversion.
In Hebrew, the word “shubh” for conversion indicates that one has taken a wrong direction and is summoned to return to God. In Greek, the word metanoia (“change of heart”) connotes not just a static compunction but a dynamic and determined turn-around and a commitment to a new way of life in God. In both cases, conversion is not purely a human decision or endeavor but a human response to God’s prior initiative. In the New Testament, conversion is a response to Jesus in whose person, words and deeds God’s Kingdom becomes an emerging reality.
Advent is intended to shake us to conversion or on-going conversion as our response to the new dawn that Jesus Christ has brought into the world. And this cannot be a half-baked conversion. Matthew tells us that many of the Pharisees and adducees come to listen to John and to be baptized by him. But John attacks them with his strong words: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Perhaps these Pharisees and Sadducees are toying with a change of heart, but not to the point of completely making a turn-around and committing themselves to God and to a new way of life. “Bearing fruit worth of repentance” is the only indicator of an experience of real and authentic conversion.
Fr. Delp, in his reflection on Advent on December 7, 1941, considered that one of the challenges of Advent is the call to authenticity. He said: “Someone who encounters the Ultimate, who knows about the end, must let go of every compromise. In the presence of the Ultimate the only thing that survives is what is authentic. All compromise shatters this. All cheap negotiating shatters this. All half-truths, and all double meanings, and all masks, and all poses shatter this. The only thing that stands the test is what is authentic.”
To embrace the Advent challenge of conversion is to embrace authenticity. John the Baptist shows the way to authenticity by knowing who he is before Jesus. He is not the Messiah; Jesus is the Messiah. Thus, he points to Jesus as the one who is stronger than he, the one who baptizes with the Spirit and the one who separates the wheat from the chaff.
Conversion is a journey towards who we really are before the Lord, to our authentic identity in God: Sinful yet Beloved! It is also a journey towards meeting others as we truly are in relation to one another: Brothers and Sisters in God! When we are finally shaken to our authentic identity in God and in relation to others, then we become capable of truly encountering the Lord in Himself and in others. Only when we are shaken to our true selves that we begin to become Advent people who are awake and ready for the Lord and his manifold visitations.