This preparation, fully embraced, issues in a celebration of Christmas marked by profound peace and real hope.
Key to the preparation is the experience highlighted by the Gospel for the Second Sunday of Advent: repentance (cf. Matthew 3:1-12). We heard John the Baptist cry out to all who would listen: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” We prepare for God to rule in our lives by repenting. What does this mean?
The word is familiar to us. We hear it all the time, especially in the liturgical seasons of Advent and Lent. Do we understand it? My guess is that we often think of it in terms of sorrow for sins committed and a determination not to repeat the offences. Well, yes, that is certainly part of it, but the term “repentance” means much more. Far more. At its heart, the biblical call to repentance is the summons to radical conversion. I use the word “radical” deliberately. It comes from the Latin word “radix”, meaning “root”. So to repent is to allow oneself to be thoroughly “uprooted”, that is to say, entirely changed. It means a complete re-alignment of one’s life, a thoroughgoing re-direction away from anything and everything that is contrary to living in the love of God and keeping his commandments. We are obviously a great distance from preoccupation with Christmas lights!
Did you notice I said “allow oneself” to be changed? This is important. True repentance is not something we are able to pull off by ourselves. It comes about as a response to the love of Christ and with the help of his grace. Consider the rather frightening image used by St. John the Baptist. He speaks of the “axe lying at the root of the trees” so as to cut down and throw into fire any tree that does not produce fruit. He is speaking in very dramatic fashion of the action of God himself. God wants to get at “the roots” of our lives. He wants to sever us from the roots we so often put down into the soil of self-reliance, in order to re-root us in his own Son, Jesus. His “axe” is mercy. He offers “radical” forgiveness, a healing at our very roots, and thus enables us to start again, indeed, to live again.
The second candle has been lit. Time is passing. Let’s not waste it in the superficial but go to the very root of things. Let’s seriously prepare for Christmas by asking God to lead us by his Word and his mercy to a radical conversion of our minds, our hearts, and our actions.