Today’s Gospel presents the beginning of Mark’s Gospel 1:1-8. This Gospel begins not with the story of the birth of Jesus, but with the words of the Prophet Isaiah which captures God’s dreams of the Good News of Salvation through Jesus Christ. It is within this dream and desires of God that John the Baptist is introduced as God’s messenger in the wilderness who is proclaiming the need for “a Baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.”
As in John the Baptist’s time and more so now, 2,000 years after the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ, we all need the repentance of our sins. We all know that unless we are sorry and repentant of our sins, our hearts would remain shut from the forgiving love of God who wants to save us. This is the basic truth of our faith that we cannot deny, but have to accept and abide if we want to be a believer and disciple of Christ, our Lord and Saviour.
In the concrete daily living of our faith, we all know that in any relationships unless we “say sorry” for the sins that we have committed; for the wrongs and hurts that we have caused, the relationships that we are in cannot be reconciled.
There is a Russian novelist, Tolstoi who tells of the story of Ivan whose ambition in life was to be successful and be powerful. He worked very hard to attain his goal in life as a great judge. However, at the peak of his career, he was suddenly struck down by a terminal disease; his doctors say that he would soon die. Ivan experienced a great crisis not so much that he was dying, but more so because when he looked back on his life, he realised for the first time that he had lived selfishly only for himself – he never loved anyone; not even his wife and his son.
Upon such a realisation of the tragic life that he had lived, he screamed for three days. However, as he lies helplessly on his bed dying, he begins to experience for the first time the love of a servant boy and then the love of his wife and son, and through them the love of an eternal God. With such consolations of love, he finally discovers the true meaning of life, seeks reconciliation and dies in peace.
Without reconciliation, Ivan’s relationship with his family, and indeed in all relationships, they would remain strained, divided and broken. The pain and the hurts of relationships will remain and unless healed and reconciled in time, they will continue to worsen and if this were to continue its increasing complexities would eventually destroy the relationship.
We have all come across such predictable trends of relationships either that of our own, or in our family or in people that we know. Sadly we know that such relationships, if in marriage would likely end in legal separation or divorce that breaks up the family. Such painful relationships can also be found amongst relatives, in religious communities, staff in offices, factions in Parish communities and the like.
However, the Good News in the Gospel that we just heard proclaimed offers us a divine promise that all the pains of relationships and the darkness of life’s situations can be transformed into one of light and hope if we are open to being reconciled through the Truth and power of the Holy Spirit that Jesus Christ is to bring into our lives and world in which we live.
To begin with, John the Baptist of today’s Gospel is himself a model of such true hope for us as we can learn much from him; he is first of all a man of great humility. To undo the straps of the sandal of someone in the Jewish culture is such a lowly and demeaning task that not even a Jewish slave is allowed to do it; only a foreign slave can untie the strap of the sandal of a Jew. Yet, John the Baptist is even humbler; even as Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel 11:11 praises him in saying that before him there is no other greater prophet than him, yet, John the Baptist considers himself unworthy to untie the straps of the sandals of Jesus.
The virtue of humility opens us to the power of the Holy Spirit to change our hearts to be more like Christ. Pride on the other hand, shuts us and cuts us off from the transforming graces of God. Even as Ivan, in our story, lived a life of pride and self-centeredness, his saving grace on his dying bed was when he began to open his heart in humility to recognise the goodness in the persons around him beginning with the servant boy, then his wife and his son. Without such grace of humility, Ivan would have died a miserable death.
John the Baptist went further, his humility was self-effacing; his focus in life was totally lived to point others to follow Christ whom he considers himself to be unworthy to untie the straps of His sandals.
Deep in our hearts we all want to be repentant and to live the fuller and more fulfilling life that Jesus wants us to live. However, the tendency is for us to hold back and respond in half measures. In the “I Confess” prayer at the beginning of each Mass we ask God to forgive us for the sins we have committed in “what we have done” and also in “what we have failed to do.” So, giving God only in half-measures and failing to love Him and others totally are also sins of omissions that we have to be aware of. There is a written by poem by Joe Saramane, which I would like us to reflect on (as adapted here); in many ways it captures this truth of our “half measures” sins of omission as we often experience them daily. It says:
You asked for my hands
that You might use them for Your purpose;
I gave them for a moment, but then withdrew them
when the work was hard.
You asked for my mouth to speak against injustice,
But, I gave You a whisper
that I might not be accused.
You asked for my eyes to see the pain of poverty,
But, I closed them for I did not want to see.
You asked for my life
that You might work hard through me;
But, I gave You only a small part
that I might not get ‘too involved.’
Lord, forgive me for the calculated efforts
to serve You only when it is convenient for me to do so;
only in those places where it is safe do to do so;
and only with those who make it easy to do so.
Father, forgive me, renew me, send me out,
as a visible instrument,
that I may take seriously the meaning of Your Cross
and more wholeheartedly the mission You give me
to make Your Gospel know in my daily life.
My brothers and sisters in Christ, while none of us are perfect, God wants us to try our very best to live in the ways that He wills of us, and love Him as fully as we can. Giving God half-measures and our leftover time and loose change is never the way we should treat and relate to Christ our Lord. To be Christ-like, we are each challenged to give till it hurts – and our giving and sharing of God’s blessings hurts, we are probably still giving God in the half-measures (as reminded by the poem).
Last evening, I attended our Parish 8.15 am family choir year end dinner celebration at our Sacred Heart hall. We had pot-luck and BBQ for dinner and an hour of carolling at the end. It was truly a wholesome, joyful and spirit-filled celebration. I was very heartened and touched by the family spirit of how the children, the youth and parents all came together to contribute to the making of the celebration such a meaningful one. Such communal sharing and celebrations are very good ways of living in Christ-like ways. Repentance is not only trying to avoid as many sins as we can; it is also stretching ourselves to do as much good as we can, in God’s ways.
And so, as I conclude, let us remind ourselves that while repentance is telling God and one another that we are sorry for not having lived as God Wills of us, and thereby causing pain, division and hurts to people, “repentance” is also about doing good and being Christ-like. And so, last night’s celebration was one example of how this Christ-like Spirit can be shared and experienced with others.
Let also remind ourselves of the tragic story of Ivan; that it be a lesson for us not to repeat; let us open our hearts to God’s Spirit more fully, and let us “be Peace” to someone and others this Second Week of Advent. And to be “Christ’s Peace” to others, let us repent of our sins and do the good that Jesus expects of us – always responding in full measures; giving till it hurts and giving God the best.
Fr Philip Heng,S.J.
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