I remember it like it was yesterday, but this event happened maybe 20 years ago. We were leading an Advent retreat in the little parish of Claybank, Sask. This was a three-evening experience with the parish in charge of presenting a patron saint each evening. The first saint was Isaiah, the second evening was John the Baptist and the third was Mary the mother of Jesus. Each group was charged with creating a profile from Scripture and a person dressed as the saint offered a reflection or reading. I remember that the first night was unique as they had Isaiah speaking to a discouraged farmer. But the second night was the most stunning.
They had asked a young farmer to be John the Baptist and he was really dressed for the part, complete with a beard, a staff and a crazed look. As he approached the front of the church, he carried a sign that read: “REPENT.” As he came closer to the front, people started to giggle when he passed. The reason for their nervous laughter was the back of the sign which read: “OR ELSE!” He said nothing, but his wild glare and fearsome countenance said it all as he laid his sign down on the sanctuary and walked to the back, eyeing the whole congregation!
John the Baptist was as wild a prophet as any you’d find in the Hebrew story. His fearless call for justice and right relationship paved the way for the message and person of Jesus. People paid attention when he pointed to Jesus as the real Messiah. His piercing personality and his confrontation with Herod led to his martyrdom. But even John had misgivings. “Go and ask him if he is the one, or are we to wait for another,” he said. Jesus’ response gave John what he needed to know. ”Go back and tell John what you see. The blind see, the deaf hear and the poor have the good news proclaimed to them.” With this assurance, John could face his death with meaning and purpose.
But John’s message included harsh punishment for those who did not heed his message of conversion. In today’s Gospel he calls the Pharisees a “brood of vipers.” He challenges them (and us, by extension) to not rest on our heritage, position or tradition that might cause us to be smug and self-satisfied with our spiritual place. A faith that isn’t growing could be dying.
Both John and Isaiah use images of scary repercussions for those who have no “fear of the Lord.” We should examine what this “fear of the Lord” is all about. Since this is mentioned as one of the “gifts” of the Holy Spirit, and since we live in a culture of complacency about spiritual affairs, it might be useful during this Advent season to reconsider the meaning of our relationship to God.
The central message of “fear of the Lord” has less to do with being afraid of God’s punishment, and more to do with the importance of a desire to please God in our life’s choices and life’s direction. Someone who has great respect and admiration for a parent would find it disheartening to know they disappointed their mother or father by their choices. When was the last time you added to your considerations a thought about how God would consider your choice?
Some years back there was a movement entitled: “WWJD” which stood for “What Would Jesus Do?” This is another way of saying that any Christian life, in order to call itself Christian, needs to have an avenue where God’s will (known through the teaching, the community, one’s own prayer life, and the sacraments of the church) is given a proper “weight” when considering the choices we make in our lives.
Fear of hell and damnation certainly motivated people’s behaviour in the past. However, the roots of their faith may have been shallow and much was abandoned when the “cattle prods” of God’s vengeance and anger were downplayed.
Today we have grown in our awareness of the gentler God, a God of mercy and compassion, slow to anger and rich in understanding. Some would say that has fed into the increase of complacency when it comes to religious practice. However, we might be witnessing a new age of religion “by attraction,” rather than “religion by inheritance.”
Pope Francis recently called for this kind of witness to our faith. Faith by attraction is rooted in the gifts of joy, peace, kindness and care we offer to others. This can lead recipients of our charity to ask what our motivation is behind our care. They may even find it so attractive that they ask to be a part of whatever faith community we are attached to.
Faith by attraction requires works of charity, works of mercy, works of giving ourselves to the poor. That is why St. Paul, in today’s second reading, wants to stir up the “witness factor” of the new Christians by challenging them to welcome one another and to welcome the gentiles among them by their love for and praise to God, “so that the gentiles might glorify God for his mercy.”
Thomas Merton had a wonderful prayer that speaks to the desire of our hearts to follow the will of God in our lives:
“My Lord God I have no idea where I am going. I do not see the road ahead of me. I cannot know for certain where it will end. Nor do I really know myself, and the fact that I think I am following your will does not mean that I am actually doing so.
But I believe that my desire to please you does in fact please you. And I hope that I have that desire in all that I am doing. I hope that I will never do anything apart from that desire. And I know that if I do this, you will lead me by the right road, though I may know nothing about it.
Therefore, I will trust you always though I may seem to be lost and in the shadow of death. I will not fear, for you are ever with me, and you will never leave me to face my perils alone.”
During this Advent, allow God’s voice to whisper attractive words of wisdom to you. Words that will cause your heart to stir for justice and to soften for love of God and neighbour. May your welcoming of others increase! This can make Christmas a truly sacred and holy event in our families and in our communities.
Williston gives parish missions and is a former missionary with the Redemptorists. He is also a song writer and recording artist.