As the days get shorter and Christmas gets closer the Advent wreath gets brighter. It’s a powerful reminder that light overcomes darkness. The light of Christmas, the light of Christ, overcomes the darkness. The Church gives us the season of Advent to train us in attentive trust, so that we can give God permission to come into our lives. To let the light of Christ come into our lives. And so the gospel today brings us St. John the Baptist. He’s a wild character, the last of the Old Testament prophets.
Now John the Baptist doesn’t mince words. He calls for repentance. And this call to repentance is hard and relentless but despite this, people flocked to him coming from great distances. John the Baptist didn’t tell people what they wanted to hear, he told them what needed to be heard. And maybe that’s why he was so popular. He was a genuine man and on top of that he was also very hopeful. He offered hope. “Our savior is coming.”
His call to repentance affected hearts. People believed him when he said it was time to rethink their lives and to repent. It was time to change. So people began to speak up and to say what was wrong in their lives. They admitted their guilt and their regret. And to make the cleansing of their hearts and consciences visible John washed them in the waters of the Jordan.
For the Jews the Jordan River was a powerful symbol of hope and new life. God did great things at the Jordan. He cleansed Naaman, the Syrian, of his leprosy there and he took the prophet Elijah up to heaven at the Jordan. But most of all God led the Israelites across the Jordan River at the end of their forty-year journey in the desert. It was through the Jordan that God led his people to the Promised Land. And now after being washed in the waters of the Jordan John’s followers were reentering the Promised Land with a radical reorientation of their lives.
There are four things we can say about repentance. Repentance is first the recognition that I am infinitely loved by God. He is always looking upon me. Repentance is second knowing that I have sometimes failed to live up to that love, that I have sinned, that I have grievously sinned. Repentance is third, the knowledge, the heartfelt knowledge, that I need his mercy. And finally Repentance is giving God a free hand to work in my life as he wants, “Do with me as you will Lord.” And to live this way is supremely freeing. It means that I don’t have to save myself. It means that I allow Jesus to enter into my life, and take control. I give myself to Him. I trust. To repent is to ultimately trust in Jesus.
On Monday night I was Christmas shopping and the woman checking me out at the store asked me, “What do you do for a living?” And I said I’m a Catholic priest. Her face lit up and she almost shouted, “I love Jesus too!” Then she said, “Wait here I have something for you.” She went back to a cabinet to get a small object. She handed it to me; it was a small red Lego piece. The kind you step on, that really hurt. “Did you know,” she said, “That the word Lego is an abbreviation for Let Go and Let God!” In other words, Trust in the Lord, make Him your Rock foundation, and give yourself to Him. The woman told me to keep in my pocket as a reminder to Trust, to let go to let God.
Cardinal John O’Connor of New York was consecrated a bishop in 1983 in Rome. On his way down the aisle after the consecration, he blessed the people gathered in the church. Suddenly he saw a famous face, and went over to greet Mother Teresa of Calcutta. He gave her a blessing, but was not prepared for what came next. She grasped one of his hands in both of hers, and said to him: “Give Jesus a free hand! Give him permission!” “Give yourself to Him.” “Trust Him.” In other words, Let go and let God. Cardinal O’Connor never forgot those words, and he said that he tried to make them a watchword for the rest of his life.
How, practically, do we give God permission? To give ourselves to God, to grow in trust, to let go and to let God. Where do we start? We’ve already taken the first step by coming to Mass. And did you know that when the gifts are being brought to the altar you too are being brought up to the altar. The bread, the wine, the monetary gifts represent the whole of our lives being offered to God. So as the men/women/ushers bring up the gifts to be offered to God the Father, you are there too. You are offering yourself to the Father in Jesus, with Jesus, and through Jesus. You are giving to the Father all your labor, all your hard work, all your joys, all your sorrows, all your struggles, all your pains, all yours sins, your everything. You are asking to be made anew. You are asking to be renewed by grace. Think about that as the gifts are being brought forward. You are there too, in the basket of monetary gifts, the fruit of your labor, in the cruet of wine, in the paten of bread, you are there too. You are giving yourself to God, did you know that?
And then when we receive Jesus Christ himself in the Eucharist; when we say “Amen” before receiving the Eucharist, we give Jesus permission to be the Lord of our Lives, and we affirm that we believe everything that the Catholic Church teaches for our happiness. But for all of that to take deep root in our souls, we need to know what our Church teaches and why. We need to know our faith to have a growing and deepening understanding. So here’s a challenge, a bit of homework. Get a copy of the Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. This is a shorter version of the Catechism, made up of short questions and answers. You can find it on Amazon – The Compendium of the Catechism of the Catholic Church. It costs $7.93.
Read a paragraph every day until Christmas, and take a few minutes to reflect on it. If it’s enriching your life, keep going after Christmas. If we do that, if we study our faith, and we give ourselves to the Lord at Mass, we’re actively giving God permission to work in our lives by cooperating with whatever he wants to inspire in us. Who knows what he might be asking of you, to find out, let go, let God.
I want to end by reading a hymn the school choir sang on Thursday after Communion. It’s all about giving ourselves, with Jesus, to the Heavenly Father. Putting ourselves on the paten, putting ourselves in the chalice.
On the paten with the Host
I offer up my lowly heart:
All my life, my deeds, my thoughts
Thine shall be as mine Thou art.
In the chalice let me be
A drop of water mingled there.
Lost O Jesus in Thy Love
Thy great sacrifice I share.
All today and ev’ry day
O Jesus let me live in thee,
So that I no longer live
But that thou may’st live through me.
When the gifts are presented, give yourself to the Lord, asked to be transformed by His saving Grace.
Peace and all good,
Fr. Christopher J. Ankley