Prepare your hearts for the gift by Rev. Paul Grankauskas
Reprinted by permission of "The Arlington Catholic Herald"
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Matthew wrote to show that Christ
Messiah and fulfilled the Jewish prophecies.
John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea and saying, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!" It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said: A voice of one crying out in the desert, Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.
John wore clothing made of camel's hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey. At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees coming to his baptism, he said to them, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance. And do not presume to say to yourselves, 'We have Abraham as our father. For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire. I am baptizing you with water, for repentance, but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I. I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fan is in his hand. He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire."
When someone is expecting a new baby, it seems that two things have to happen. First, father and mother have to make sure the baby's room is ready and that they have what they need to take care of the child (diapers, formula, a crib, clothes, etc.) These are, if you will, the external preparations to be made.
But something deeper needs to happen. What a new baby needs above all is a family ready to receive it and love it. A new baby in the house means a change in family dynamics.
Moms and dads know that their schedules will be thrown off by late-night feedings and revolve around naps. Much of their lives are going to be centered on the needs of this child, and they will not be free to go where they want whenever they want. Siblings have to learn that they now need to share mom and dad's time and love, as well as their belongings. All of this means that above and beyond its physical needs and wants, a baby needs hearts that are ready to receive it and really love it, to live for it, to nurture it, to help it grow physically and spiritually.
This is all simple, common sense, but one does hear stories of children who grow up in families where they are never told they are loved, where perhaps their presence is resented because they are keeping someone else from reaching some personal fulfillment.
I recently read an article about married couples in England who refuse to have children because of the threat they pose to our natural resources and the environment. The noble cause is to save the planet by not having children. What a message that sends to our young: "You're a drain on the environment, a plague on the earth. We would be better off without you." Talk about a lack of love. That is real sterility.
We might keep this image in mind as we consider this week's Gospel. We are presented with the figure of John the Baptist, who truly appears to be something of a wild man. First, there is his appearance: a cloak of camel's hair and a leather belt around his waist. Obviously it is odd to us, but to the people of John's day it probably was not unusual to see someone in the desert wearing such things and perhaps it would have evoked memories of the prophet Elijah.
Second, there is John's message of repentance and his warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees about producing good fruit as evidence of their repentance. He speaks of judgment and unquenchable fire. Now we can see just how fiery the man is.
But, John soon gets to the real heart of his message: there is one to come after him who is mightier than he is, one who will baptize with the Holy Spirit and fire. He is the herald announcing the coming of the Messiah. He is the one called to prepare the way for the coming of Christ.
In just a few short weeks we will be remembering the birth of that Messiah, and we would do well to remember John's warning to the Pharisees and Sadducees. We are going to be celebrating the birth of a child. We will decorate our homes accordingly. We will gather with family and friends, we will be exchanging gifts, all in honor of Jesus' birth. But Our Lord wants more than that. He wants and needs hearts and minds that are ready to receive the gift of His Spirit, the gift of His love. As Christ desired to lay down His life for us, He longs for hearts that will live for Him, that will love Him, too.
Our Lord once said that blessed are those who hear the word of God and keep it. It is possible for us to hear the Word of God and do nothing with it. Herod Antipas listened to John the Baptist and was fascinated by the man, but he never did anything to repent or convert. The Word of God fell on a hard heart and bore not fruit. This is spiritual sterility.
The Holy Spirit, the love of God, cannot take root in a heart that remains attached to sin. The message to repent, to turn away from sin, is directed to us as much as it was the people of John's day. Advent is the perfect time to heed the Baptist's words and get thee to confession. This invitation goes out especially to those who have been away from the sacrament for a long time, even if it has been years. The Holy Spirit cannot renew us and make of us a new creation if we are not ready to receive Him and welcome Him, if we are willing to cling to sinful habits and actions. Now is the time to let it go.
John the Baptist and the one whose coming he foretold have made it quite clear. The Lord of Life wishes to make His home with us, to fix His dwelling within us. Let us make straight His path and welcome Him.
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