Conversion: The Way Forward: Gift and Answer

Lectio Divina: Second Sunday of Advent – Year A

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Roman Rite
Is 11.1 to 10; Ps 72; Rm 15.4 to 9; Mt 3,1-12
Ambrosian Rite
Is 40,1-11; Ps 71; B 10,5-9a; Mt 21, 1-9
Fourth Sunday of Advent
The entrance of the Messiah
1) The waiting for God and conversion.
On this second Sunday of Advent, the liturgy invites us to the conversion necessary to accommodate the coming Kingdom of heaven[1]: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Mt 3,1). This Kingdom of heaven is Jesus himself, our neighbor is the Son of God made flesh in the womb of a woman who brings salvation to all mankind. The salvation, brought by Christ and expected by us, is righteousness, joy, peace, love, truth, kindness, solidarity, fraternity, honest, and kindness.
Since the coming of God in our lives is imminent, John the Baptist strongly asks us to do penance. Penance cleans the heart, opens us to hope and enables us to encounter Jesus coming into the world.
However, it is important to consider that the call to conversion doing penance, is not just to live – during Advent – with a more sober style of life, more frequent prayer and more generous charity. Converting calls to an inner change, which begins with the recognition and the confession of sins. In fact, conversion indicates change of mind and behavior and demands the recognition that we are not worthy of God coming to live at our house.
It should also be kept in mind that the first conversion consists in faith[2], which is not only adherence to the content of a message, but adherence to a person who asks us to come into our lives and be accepted. Therefore, conversion is a radical and profound change. It implies not only a moral, but a theological change, that is a new way of thinking about God and to live in Him. It is a reorientation of our whole being: mind and heart, thought and action.
On the one hand, this orientation toward the Kingdom of Heaven is in line with the prophets, who intended the concreteness of conversion as the radical departure from anything that, up to this moment, was important. On the other hand, it goes further and shows that conversion is a turn towards the Kingdom of Heaven and to a novelty forthcoming with its needs and perspectives. It is about giving a decisive turn to life, orienting it in a new direction. It is the Kingdom of heaven that establishes and defines conversion, and not a series of human efforts.
  For this conversion to occur, let’s make our own the prayer that the priest does at the beginning of today’s Mass: “God of the living, awakens in us the desire for conversion, so that, renewed by your Holy Spirit, we implement in every human relationship the justice, meekness and peace that the incarnation of your Word has made sprout out on the earth. Through our Lord Jesus Christ our Lord (Collect of the Second Sunday of Advent – Year A).” Then the wish of St. Paul will become true: “May the God of peace himself make you perfectly holy and may you entirely, spirit, soul, and body, be preserved blameless for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ.  The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it. “(1 Thessalonians 5: 23-24)
2) Conversion from the top and conversion to the top of the stars.
This Sunday we are called to go spiritually in the desert, because the Gospel makes us listen to the “Voice of one crying in the wilderness: Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight! And he, John, wore a garment of camel’s hair and a leather belt around his waist; and his food was locusts and wild honey “(Mt 3: 3-4). St. John the Baptist, the voice proclaiming the Word, is presented as an ascetic of the desert who wears rough robes, has a leather belt around his waist and feeds on insects. If we are not asked to be ascetic and to live John’s life in the desert, we are asked that our conversion be as evangelical as his.
This conversion has at least three characteristics.
The first is radicalism. Conversion is not an exterior or partial change, but a total reorientation of the whole being. It is a real shift from selfishness to love, from keeping everything to self to the gift of self.
The second feature is religiosity. It is not confronting with himself, but referring to God that man discovers the extent and the direction of his own change. The first conversion (in the etymological sense of turning to someone to be with him) is not that of a person towards God, but that of God towards every human being. It is a movement of grace that makes possible the change of man and provides the model for this change. In the night and in the solitude of a cave, the spring of humanity is coming: the Son of God who becomes a pilgrim from the stars above.
The third characteristic of the evangelical conversion is its profound humanity. Conversion means the return home, the recovery of full humanity and the finding of the identity of being a child, as in the parable of the prodigal son.
When on reasons in non-evangelical way, conversion is seen as a loss of what is human: In a wrong way, the people think: “if I do not convert to Crist, I find my humanity”. On the contrary, in fact, with the Cristian conversion, man is not lost, but finds himself, becoming free from the alienations that fascinate but destroy him.
Conversion is a constant journey to Christ to renew our “heavenly behavior” through a new desire for heaven. Let us therefore make different (changed) our hearts with the holy desire of Christ. In this way heaven (Christ) will find in us more space.
If we want life to grow, flourish and reach maturity so to pierce, one day, the veils of transience, the most important thing is that it must put more and deeper roots. If we want the fullness of God to fill us with grace, it is critical that our heart widens more and more to hold more and more.
Christian conduct, therefore fully human, becomes more perfect when it flows from a stronger desire for heaven: “Come, Lord, to visit us in peace, so that there we rejoice in You with a perfect heart” (see Antiphon to the Magnificat, first Vespers of Second Sunday of Advent).
This request: “Come, Lord Jesus” must be made by all Christians. The consecrated virgins, through their total gift of self to Christ, give an example beautiful, great and generous. They are aware that the bridegroom seeks his beloved and that they vigil waiting for him. They make theirs that passage of the Song of Songs: “A voice! My beloved! Here it comes, springing upon the mountains, leaping across the hills. My lover is like a gazelle or a young stag. See! He is standing behind our wall; gazing through the windows, peering through the lattices .”(2,8-9). I was sleeping, but my heart was awake. The sound of my lover knocking! “Open to me, my sister, my friend,my dove, my perfect one! (5.2). “I am my beloved and my beloved belongs to me” (6.3).
With their consecration, these virgin women show how it is possible and a source of joy to welcome Christ a sweetly expected guest and as the groom to whom to devote loyalty forever. They show us with humility that it is possible to always keep the lamps lit, waiting with love the coming of the Savior.
Starting from their example, I wish that, not only in this Advent season, all try to always be attentive to the voice of Christ and to love him above all things.
Patristic Reading
Saint John Chrysostom ( 344/354407)
Homily X. Matthew Chapter 3, Verse 1 And Matthew Chapter 3, Verse 2
Mt 3,1-7
“In those days cometh John the Baptist, preaching in the wilderness of Judaea, and saying, Repent ye: for the kingdom of Heaven is at hand.”
How “in those days”? For not then, surely, when He was a child, and came to Nazareth, but thirty years after, John cometh; as Luke also testifies. How then is it said, “in those days”? The Scripture is always wont to use this manner of speech, not only when it is mentioning what occurs in the time immediately after, but also of things which are to come to pass many years later. Thus also, for example, when His disciples came unto Him as He sat on the Mount of Olives, and sought to learn about His coming, and the taking of Jerusalem:1 and yet ye know how great is the interval between those several periods. I mean, that having spoken of the subversion of the mother city, and completed His discourse on that subject, and being about to pass to that on the consummation, he inserted, “Then shall these things also come to pass;”2 not bringing together the times by the word then, but indicating that time only in which these things were to happen. And this sort of thing he doth now also, saying, “In those days.” For this is not put to signify the days that come immediately after, but those in which these things were to take place, which he was preparing to relate.
“But why was it after thirty years,” it may be said, “that Jesus came unto His baptism”? After this baptism He was thenceforth to do away with the law: wherefore even until this age, which admits of all sins, He continues fulfilling it all; that no one might say, that because He Himself could not fulfill it, He did it away. For neither do all passions assail us at all times; but while in the first age of life there is much thoughtlessness and timidity, in that which comes after it, pleasure is more vehement, and after this again the desire of wealth. For this cause he awaits the fullness of His adult age, and throughout it all fulfills the law, and so comes to His baptism, adding it as something which follows upon the complete keeping of all the other commandments.
To prove that this was to Him the last good work of those enjoined by the law, hear His own words: “For thus it becometh us to fulfill all righteousness.”3 Now what He saith is like this: “We have performed all the duties of the law, we have not transgressed so much as one commandment. Since therefore this only remains, this too must be added, and so shall we “fulfill all righteousness.” For He here calls by the name of “righteousness” the full performance of all the commandments.

  1. Now that on this account Christ came to His baptism, is from this evident. But wherefore was this baptism devised for Him For that not of himself did the son of Zacharias proceed to this, but of God who moved him,—this Luke also declares, when he saith, “The word of the Lord came unto him,”4 that is, His commandment. And he himself too saith, “He that sent me to baptize with water, the same said to me, upon whom thou shalt see the Spirit descending like a dove, and remaining on Him, the same is He which baptizeth with the Holy Ghost.”5 Wherefore then was he sent to baptize? The Baptist again makes this also plain to us, saying, “I knew Him not, but that He should be made manifest to Israel, therefore am I come baptizing with water.”6

And if this was the only cause, how saith Luke, that “he came into the county about Jordan, preaching the baptism of repentance for the remission of sins?”7 And yet it had not remission, but this gift pertained unto the baptism that was given afterwards; for in this “we are buried with Him,”8 and our old man was then crucified with Him, and before the cross there doth not appear remission anywhere; for everywhere this is imputed to His blood. And Paul too saith, “But ye are washed, but ye are sanctified,” not by the baptism of John, but “in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, and by the Spirit of our God.”9 And elsewhere too he saith, “John verily preached a baptism of repentance,” (he saith not “of remission,”) “that they should believe on Him that should come after him.”10 For when the sacrifice was not yet offered, nether had the spirit yet come down, nor sin was put away, nor the enmity removed, nor the curse destroyed; how was remission to take place?
What means then, “for the remission of sins?”
The Jews were senseless, and had never any feeling of their own sins, but while they were justly accountable for the worst evils, they were justifying themselves in every respect; and this more than anything caused their destruction, and led them away from the faith. This, for example, Paul himself was laying to their charge, when he said, that “they being ignorant of God’s righteousness, and going about11 to establish their own, had not submitted themselves unto the righteousness of God.”12 And again: “What shall we say then? That the Gentiles, which followed not after righteousness, have attained13 to righteousness; but Israel, which followed after the law of righteousness, hath not attained14 unto the law of righteousness. Wherefore? Because they sought it not by faith, but as it were by works.”15
Since therefore this was the cause of their evils, John cometh, doing nothing else but bringing them to a sense of their own sins. This, among other things, his very garb declared, being that of repentance and confession. This was indicated also by what he preached, for nothing else did he say, but “bring forth fruits meet for repentance.”16 Forasmuch then as their not condemning their own sins, as Paul also hath explained, made them start off from Christ, while their coming to a sense thereof would set them upon longing to seek after their Redeemer, and to desire remission; this John came to bring about, and to persuade them to repent, not in order that they might be punished, but that having become by repentance more humble, and condemning themselves, they might hasten to receive remission.
But let us see how exactly he hath expressed it; how, having said, that he “came preaching the baptism of repentance in the wilderness of Judaea,” he adds, “for remission,”as though he said, For this end he exhorted them to confess and repent of their sins; not that they should be punished, but that they might more easily receive the subsequent remission. For had they not condemned themselves, they could not have sought after His grace; and not seeking, they could not have obtained remission.
Thus that baptism led the way for this; wherefor also he said, that “they should believe on Him which should come after him;”17 together with that which hath been mentioned setting forth this other cause of His baptism. For neither would it have been as much for him to have gone about to their houses, and to have led Christ around, taking Him by the hand, and to have said, “Believe in This Man;” as for that blessed voice to be uttered, and all those other things performed in the presence and sight of all.
On account of this He cometh to the baptism. Since in fact both the credit of him that was baptizing, and the purport of the thing itself,18 was attracting the whole city, and calling it unto Jordan; and it became a great spectacle.19
Therefore he humbles them also when they are come, and persuades them to have no high fancies about themselves; showing them liable to the utmost evils, unless they would repent, and leaving their forefathers, and all vaunting in them, would receive Him that was coming.
Because in fact the things concerning Christ had been up to that time veiled, and many thought He was dead, owing to the massacre which took place at Bethlehem. For though at twelve years old He discovered Himself, yet did He also quickly veil Himself again. And for this cause there was need of that splendid exordium and of a loftier beginning. Wherefore also then for the first time he with clear voice proclaims things which the Jews had never heard, neither from prophets, nor from any besides; making mention of Heaven, and of the kingdom there, and no longer saying anything touching the earth.
But by the kingdom in this place he means His former and His last advent.

  1. “But what is this to the Jews?” one may say, “for they know not even what thou sayest.” “Why, for this cause,” saith he, “do I so speak, in order that being roused by the obscurity of my words, they may proceed to seek Him, whom I preach.” In point of fact, he so excited them with good hopes when they came near, that even many publicans and soldiers inquired whet they should do, and how they should direct their own life; which was a sign of being thenceforth set free from all worldly things, and of looking to other greater objects, and of forebodings things to come. Yea, for all, both the sights and the words of that time, led them unto lofty thoughts.

Conceive, for example, how great a thing it was to see a man after thirty years coming down from the wilderness, being the son of a chief priest, who had never known the common wants of men, and was on every account venerable, and had Isaiah with him. For he too was present proclaiming him, and saying, “This is he who I said should come crying, and preaching throughout the whole wilderness with a clear voice.” For so great was the earnestness of the prophets touching these things, that not their own Lord only, but him also who was to minister unto Him, they proclaimed a long time beforehand, and they not only mentioned him, but the place too in which he was to abide, and the manner of the doctrine which he had to teach when he came, and the good effect that was produced by him.

[1] “Kingdom of Heaven” is an expression typical of Saint Matthew who uses it 33 times in his Gospel. It is a Jewish way of saying that out of respect, substitutes “heaven” for God. The expression “Kingdom of Heaven’ indicates that God will reveal himself to all and with great power: the power of the Love that donates and doesn’t control.
[2]  Saint Thomas of Aquinas, Summa Theologica, I-IIae,q.113,a.4

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Mgr Francesco Follo

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