(Ed. Note: Story and thoughts from Jack Shea)
Two old rabbis were walking one day, speaking of the One who was to come. They were repeating the words of the prophets to themselves, expressing their hopes and their dreams through the words of these men of old. As they neared a bridge over a stream, it seemed that an angry mob was blocking their progress. The older of the two rabbis encouraged his younger brother. He said, “Don’t believe your eyes. They are just phantoms trying to make us turn away from our destination.”
The younger rabbi responded, “Might we not be phantoms as well?”
“No, we are not phantoms,” the elder rabbi answered, “as long as we have at some time had the genuine urge to repent.”
A genuine urge to repent is an expression of our desire to be real, to be conscious of our ultimate grounding. Why did the people come to John and submit to his harsh words and tactics? Why do we still journey to his desert today? The reason lies deep down inside our being; we sense the promise that lies within our desire to repent, the promise to move beyond half-heartedness and delusion, the promise to be real, the promise that will lead us to our heart. John represents the call to repentance, a yearning to return to a time when our hearts were open to receive the love for which God created us.
John’s voice emerges out of his desert purification, and it is a cry from John’s heart to all hearts. It is not a small voice or a muffled desire. It is an all-out cry, an impassioned combination of invitation and announcement. It is fired by the perception that there is a promise at the center of repentance.
Repentance is not an end in itself. It is the first step in a process of fulfillment. The letting go is for the purpose of receiving. The stripping away is preparation for new clothing. The arduous task of clearing a path is for the arrival of what is deeply desired. John the Baptist knows that the way to the garden of human flourishing is through the desert of self-confrontation, and this insight is the energy of his passionate preaching.
As we prepare for yet another celebration of the Nativity of Our Lord Jesus, we, like the people who came to hear John preach, need to prepare our hearts to receive the new-born King. As we have heard so many times, God is love. However, in order to receive the love that is offered in the Incarnate Word of God, we must empty our hearts of all the clutter that has gathered there, all of the things that would make it impossible for our hearts to receive that love.
The prophet Isaiah enumerates the obstacles that block the pathways of our hearts by telling us how the Promised One will be different. When he tells us that the Messiah will not judge by appearances, he is also saying that we do. When he reports that the Messiah will not base decisions on hearsay, he is upbraiding us for so doing. When he tells us that the Messiah will deal with the poor with justice, he is condemning us for our indifference to their need. All that the Messiah is lies in counter distinction to who we are and how we have acted.
God’s covenant with Israel was forged in the desert. Thus, John returns to the desert and calls the people back to the desert because he knows that this is God’s trysting place. Repentance can only happen when we leave behind all that we have acquired, all of the comforts to which we have grown accustomed. The desert is a barren place. No creature comforts, no succulent food, no heady wine is found in the desert. God’s Word cannot reach our hearts when we are thus encumbered. Only when we move out into the desert of self-consciousness are we able to return to our covenanted relationship with God. Thus we once again listen to the voice of John, a voice that cries out, “Prepare the way of the Lord,” the way to our hearts.
Fr. Lawrence Jagdfeld, O.F.M.