This week’s gospel features John the Baptist crying out in the desert, “Repent, for the kingdom of Heaven is close at hand.” (Mt 3:1-12). John must have been a wild-looking figure in his camel-hair clothing and leather loin-cloth, preaching repentance. Yet, his message resonated and people came to him to confess their sins and be baptized.
Advent is a time for repentance. Coming as it does at the beginning of the liturgical year, it is a time for a fresh start; a time to shake off our old ways and begin anew. We need John’s message as much as the people of Judea did 2000 years ago. Conversion isn’t always easy. As we all know from our secular New Year’s Resolutions, the best of intentions often fail us by week number two. Yet, it is possible. Some people actually do lose weight, quit smoking, or get more organized. By the same token, some people actually do turn their spiritual lives around. They reject whatever sin has been plaguing them; they repent, do penance, and try to avoid temptation. They make a real effort to love God and neighbor.
In “Saints Behaving Badly: The Cutthroats, Crooks, Trollops, Con Men, and Devil Worshippers who Became Saints” (Doubleday, 2006), Thomas J. Craughwell tells the stories of many saints who lived scandalous lives only to one day begin the process of completely turning that life around. Reading some of these stories is like reading the front of the tabloids today: adultery, prostitution, murder, alcoholism, extortion, etc. The point is not to focus on how bad these saints’ lives were, but rather how dramatic their conversion. As Craughwell states, “the point of reading these stories is not to experience some tabloid thrill, but to understand how grace works in the world. . . . if these people can be saved, then so can you!”
Conversion is a process, though. It is not a one-time decision but rather a lifetime of decisions to continue on the path, to battle one’s personal demons and try to align one’s will to the will of God. But like all processes, it begins with a single step, a single choice to reject sin and try to do better. It requires asking God for forgiveness as well as the strength to do God’s will. It can be a painful process as it may mean ending some friendships that keep us trapped in our sinful ways. It may be difficult for friends and family to accept the “new you.” Some might even undermine your efforts by saying that people can’t change.
The saints profiled in “Saints Behaving Badly” prove that people can change. From St. Matthew, the shameless tax collector, who Jesus called to be an Apostle to St. Augustine, the heretic and playboy, who would become one of Christianity’s greatest theologians, to St. Margaret of Cortona, a rich man’s mistress, who would eventually repent her sins and became a third order Franciscan, they show that conversion is possible.
Advent is a time for conversion. Do you hear John the Baptist calling to you? It is time to answer the call.