“What should we do?” was the question posed to John the Baptist as he preached to crowds, toll collectors and soldiers: to those who were longing in their hearts for the coming of the messiah, John encouraged them to live righteously in the everyday circumstances in which they would find themselves.
“What should we do?” was the question so many of us asked when just 14 days ago, teenagers Chris Stewart and Deanna Rivers were innocently returning from a basketball game and were killed in a traumatic car accident on the Northway. They were living righteously, so “what should we do?”
“What should we do?” was the question every one of us muttered on Friday as we heard the horrific and senseless tragedy unfold in Newtown, Connecticut. Our beautiful children were living innocently… so “what should we do?”
And for one family just yesterday, as they prepared to face the death of their beloved dad and husband—a pillar of a man, with great virtue and constancy—they cried out silently “what should we do?” And with that plea, they called for me to anoint him for a last time; they asked for the Church to pray with them, and for them, and for him.
These are but a few of the many, many times we might find such a question in our hearts or on our lips. It’s an age-old concern, but not without a response. When the people came to John with this very question, he gives them the most reasonable, commonsense reply. He says in effect, “Live reality. God is asking you to be faithful to the ordinary circumstances of your life. He will make himself evident there.” And with that the people were filled with expectation.
They could hear the meaning of John’s words because they had heard it before, in other ways and other places. From our first reading, for example, the prophet Zephaniah declares, “shout for joy; sing joyfully; the Lord your God is in your midst…He will rejoice over you…and renew you in His love”. The people would have heard these words from childhood, and because of this, John was merely an echo of the Jewish faith.
For the toll collectors, John exhorted them to take only what was prescribed by the law, only what was required by the state for a passage tax. Oftentimes, such tolls were increased for the benefit of the collector alone. John urges them to be fair and responsible in their official dealings with others.
For the soldiers, John charged them to be peaceable, honest, and authentic defenders of true justice. In all of their duties, soldiers were to protect the people and the virtues of their office…nothing more, nothing less.
And for the crowds, John urged them to share themselves with others most generously. If blessed, share your blessing with the needy; if healthy, share mercy with the downtrodden; if strong, help leverage the weak; if rich, share all that you do not need with the poor.
In all of these, John is asking the people to understand that when such gifts of honesty, peace and justice, mercy and compassion, generosity and empathy are lived out in their everyday lives, God is in their midst to lead them rejoicing.
And with that, the people turn from their anxiety and fear and desperation: John made them attentive to their own hearts without neglecting anything of their humanity. You see, they were able to exalt with all their being because they knew they could trust the desires of their hearts: the desires for real & living love amongst each one; the desires for freedom and acceptance within their communities; the desires for affection, care and support among their sisters and brothers…in all adversity, suffering or fear…they knew that such desires were good and right. And those desires all demonstrate the closeness of God, for the Lord is as near as the next moment and whatever it brings.
And so it can be for us as well:
- our hearts desire healing when sickness invades or hope fades;
- our hearts desire forgiveness when we stumble and harm another;
- our hearts desire love, both giving and receiving, yes being “wrapped” in love;
- our hearts long for lasting peace when turmoil surrounds;
- our hearts desire a justice that serves well and protects each and every one of us;
- our hearts desire safety for the innocent, care for the forgotten, comfort for the sick, and home for those cast out.
These are all of the goods of our humanity, these are all of the graces we can rightly seek, these are all the blessings that can demonstrate—everyday—just how near God is to us.
And so we rejoice, not with an ignorant happiness; no, our lives are definitely not all about happiness (as I eluded a few minutes ago). But our lives still can be rooted in the deep and abiding joy that our strong faith gives: our sure belief is that God is with us, and so we are able to express a solid hope that He will redeem us and make us His own. That’s the source of our Advent JOY.
Tomorrow evening, we will have the opportunity to celebrate the sacrament of reconciliation with 7 area priests coming to St. Mary’s. If you have found that your own everyday life and the choices you’ve been making steer you away from a path toward God, if you’ve been despairing—not caring for the gift of faith, if you’ve simply become lazy in seeking out goodness and sharing it with those around you, this is an ideal moment and opportunity to hear God’s invitation to “Rejoice”. Please, trust God’s love and mercy, and let Him show you how near He is to you.
A further question might be: not “what should we do?” but rather, “why should we do?” Because when we do such gracious things, they help each one of us to see the salvation of God in our midst. Acting upon the longings of the human heart reminds us, reinforces us, and emboldens us then to cry out to God with rejoicing.
And finally, “how should we do?” I would suggest that we seek the example of the Lord Jesus: He faced up to all of those things that stood in the way of these ‘desires of the heart’, not with fury or retribution, but rather with true affection for the wrongdoer to be converted to goodness; He called people to dwell so near to Him and, by establishing the Church, continues to call us together each week so that we might share support, a common purpose in expressing our faith, and a singular prayer for God’s grace to assist us in the many times of need that we so often face; He mercifully forgave those who sinned against Him and encouraged them to seek righteousness anew. And in so many other ways, Jesus shared the desires of His heart with ours.
So, here is a key: we do as Jesus does; and we do so because, in this way, God’s presence is again made manifest; we do as Jesus does because He is the Lord of lords, the one who came to set us free, bring us life, and lead us home.
Rejoice, church, for this is our heritage, our calling, and our blessed destiny.
God love you always.