Francis J. Horn, O.S.A.
Province of Saint Thomas of Villanova
Is 11: 1-10
Ps 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17
Rom 15: 4-9
Mt 3: 1-12
We are all familiar with the saying, “Actions speak louder than words.” In today’s gospel, the prophet John the Baptist echoes clearly this truth when he confronts the phoniness and externalism of the Pharisees and Sadducees. John had begun his mission of “preparing the way of the Lord,” and people were going out into the desert to hear him. Many took his words to heart and acknowledged their sins and began to reform their lives. But there were some who went merely out of curiosity. Going out to hear John was becoming the “in” thing to do. For the Pharisees and Sadducees, it was a good move politically to be seen among such large gatherings for religious purposes. But John senses their insincerity, he doesn’t believe that they really want to change their lives. And so he challenges them: “Give me some evidence of your repentance; show me.”
John’s urgent call to conversion, to repentance, is the Church’s way of helping us to confront and challenge ourselves. Today, we are asked to look more closely at the re-forming (and de-forming) that are going on in our lives-and to do something about it.
The call to repent and reform is a constant call to the followers of Christ. The re-forming begins at our Baptism, when we receive the power to be re-shaped into a new life in Christ. But Baptism is only the beginning of a process of being made over and over into the image of Christ. At various times in our lives we discover that parts of ourselves may be out of shape, or that we may have gone in the wrong direction-when we have need of reform. This happens when it dawns on us how selfish we really are, or how we have used and manipulated other people; it happens when we become aware of anger and resentment deep within us; or when we discover how our lustful desires and fantasies possess us and do harm to ourselves and others. These are moments of insight and grace; these are times that are loaded with the potential for reform. What do we do with them?
Let me suggest that, first of all, when we become aware of our shortcomings, we should be thankful for the discovery of our real selves. Then we should turn to God and ask for the strength to make the needed changes.
To use the image of John the Baptist, we ask for help to be able to “lay the ax to the root of the tree of our lives,” to cut off all that is dead and death-dealing; all that does not bear the fruit of goodness: the impatience, the laziness, the resentment, the spiritual apathy.
To use John’s other image, we ask for the grace to sift the wheat from the chaff. In other words, to separate the honesty and genuineness that is within us from the deception and phoniness. We ask for help to deal with the false worldly values that may be de-forming our lives, such as the preoccupation with material things, undue anxiety over the future, overindulgence in anything, the busy-ness that causes us to neglect God and family.
To re-form our lives means we must become more and more like Christ. To reform we must first of all examine our attitudes about life, values, security. We must turn away from our self-sufficiency and ask God for help. But most of all, we have to do something about those areas that need reforming. We must answer the challenge: Show me! Actions speak louder than words. Like the Pharisees and Sadducees, we are challenged to give evidence that we are sincere about changing our lives.
John the Baptist’s cry of “repent, and reform your lives and give evidence of it” is also the cry of Jesus. It is never outdated. We need to hear it today. If we look around and see that our world does not share our vision and belief, perhaps it is because not enough of those who call themselves Christian really take to heart the challenge of John and Jesus to reform their lives.
Today, at this Mass, let each one of us examine our own life, and let us draw the strength needed for reform from our sharing in the Eucharist, the very life of Christ himself.