Conversion - A change of heart

Al Cariño
3rd Sunday in Advent
Reproduced with Permission

All three readings for Gaudete Sunday sound the call to rejoice. The prophet Zephaniah says, "Shout for joy, O daughter Zion!.... The King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst" (Zeph. 3:14-15). St. Paul echoes a similar call, "Rejoice in the Lord always.... The Lord is near" (Phil. 4: 4-5). Finally, John the Baptizer proclaims, "One mightier than I is coming.... He will baptize you with the holy Spirit and fire" (Lk. 3:16).

All three calls for rejoicing were made amidst crises: Zephaniah amidst a defeated Jerusalem, Paul amidst his chains as he awaited his execution, and John amidst the Roman occupation of Israel. Why? Because the Savior is coming, is near and is in our midst. No wonder the Church calls the third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday, Rejoice Sunday!

However, even if the Lord is already in our midst - He already came on the first Christmas day - He still has to come into our hearts as our personal Savior. So concretely, how are we to prepare ourselves for this coming? John tells us how with what he preached to the people after he asked them "to prepare the way for the Lord." His preaching was so effective that many asked him afterwards, "What then should we do?"

John's answer was very forthright. He told them to repent, to have a change of heart. He told them to make a turn-around from their selfishness and greed, from their ambition for power, from their use of authority for personal gain. In short, he wants them to effect a change of heart and then act accordingly, which is what conversion is all about.

Thus, to the rich man John said, "Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise." John does not ask them to give away everything. He just asks them to share. For example, in our time, the employers among us are to pay their workers fairly or for all of us to share from the little we have with a person in need. We can also lend a listening ear, give a sympathetic word of encouragement, breathe a little prayer for those bearing heavy problems. In short, extend a little kindness to all. And in this regard, nobody among us is too poor as to have nothing to share.

To the tax collectors John said, "Stop collecting more than what is prescribed." In Jewish society then, tax collectors were hated because they not only collaborated with their oppressors by collecting taxes for them but also exploited their own people by forcing them to pay more than what was prescribed - for their pockets obviously. But notice that John did not tell them to quit their jobs. Instead, he asked them to do their work honestly.

We see many of these "tax collectors" in contemporary society. We see them in some of our tax collectors whose lifestyles are not commensurate with what they earn. We see them in our politicians who only seek their welfare rather than of those they swear to serve. We see them in government employees who do what they are paid to do only when grease money changes hands. We see them in our businessmen who underprice what they buy and overcharge what they sell. We see them in students who cheat their way through graduation.

To the soldiers, John said, "Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages." Again, even if soldiers were the main instruments of Roman oppression and therefore were hated, John did not ask them to quit their jobs. Rather he told them not to resort to profitable sidelines like extortion or false accusations and asked them to make their jobs respectable by being satisfied with their pay.

We also see these "soldiers" in our midst. There are the soldiers and policemen who lend their persons and expertise to syndicates engaged in armed-robbery, kidnapping, illegal gambling, etc., or are themselves their leaders or members. There are those who bribe government functionaries to look the other way as they construct substandard infrastructures or deplete our forests. Never mind if in doing so they bring about great discomfort and danger to the public who use these bad roads or suffer through water shortages and flash floods brought about by environmental degradation.

As we prepare for the Lord's coming this Advent, there are many things we can learn from John: on the personal level for greater kindness and honesty, more consideration for others, being content with what we have; and on the social level for greater social awareness leading to action towards social justice and structural reforms. In short, a change of heart which leads us to act in the way God wants us to - for the common good.

When we do this, we can truly make today's Gaudete Sunday a Rejoice Sunday.