Tough Love in the Desert

Some children were asked to explain what love is. One said, “Love is when my mom makes a cup of coffee for my dad and takes a little taste before she gives it to him, to make sure it tastes okay.” Another said, “Love is when your puppy licks your face even after you’ve left him alone all day.” Another response was, “You really shouldn’t say, ‘I love you’ unless you really mean it, but if you mean it you should say it a lot, because people forget.” One boy said, “When someone loves you, the way they say your name is different. You can tell that your name is safe in their mouth.” And finally a seven-year-old said, “Love is what’s in the room with you at Christmas after you’re done opening presents and you just listen.”
Christmas is the time when we focus a lot of our attention on love, and there are certainly many kinds of love in our human experience. Love is what motivated John’s conversations with the crowds that came to listen to him on the banks of the Jordan—even though it might not sound like love at first. John knew that to announce the coming of the Savior would take a lot of blunt words about sin, repentance, and the value of a transformed life. He knew that most people will do just about anything to avoid seeing the truth about themselves, both the good and the not-so-good. Other people have “sins”, but we ourselves only have “character defects.” John knew that in order to be ready to receive the Messiah, we would have to recognize all the areas of our lives where we withhold ourselves from God, even as we proclaim our faith in God.
I don’t know about you, but I get very sentimental at Christmastime. I love all the glitter and lights and parties and it even seems like some of the more unpleasant or dreary parts of my world are temporarily better—or at least hidden from view. This seems true for others as well. People tend to put on their best clothes, clean their houses, decorate their lives with acts of kindness, and they even act better toward others, even people they might not otherwise like. Even families who can’t get along during the rest of year—the ones who harbor bitterness and hand on to old hurts and injuries—even these can put aside their differences and tolerate each other for a day. That’s because Christmas is an overwhelming cultural reality that tends to overshadow everything else. John the Baptist, of course, would have had no inkling of what we have done with the birthday of the Messiah, but had he known, he would have told us in no uncertain terms that it is more important to allow the joy and love of Christ influence us every day, not just on one day of the year.
John has this “tough love” thing down to a science! He says to his audience: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham!” John is speaking to the inner person within each of our hearts, the invisible person that no one ever sees. John knows that you and I spend a lifetime trying to hide our real intentions and desires, and he calls us “vipers” because we are not only attempting to deceive those around us, we even try to fool ourselves. Whenever we try to live in illusion, avoiding the reality of who we really are, we are following our own egos instead of God. John is insisting that each of us pay attention to what is really going on within our own hearts. There is a struggle, he says, and there is work involved in getting free of all that binds us. And because we are so sneaky about hiding our true motives, he isn’t afraid to be blunt and use some strong language.
John’s words certainly had an impact on those who were there by the Jordan on that day. The crowd heard his message all too clearly, because they began to ask him what his tough love message really meant. They began to wonder about the real condition of their relationship with God—something we ourselves might do well to focus on, more than what we’re going to purchase as gifts for people who have no need of any more gifts. If we really hear God’s Word and become aware of the shadow side of our own personalities, we won’t be able to avoid asking the same questions as John’s crowds. We all agree that our salvation is freely given by God’s grace through faith in Christ, but we sometimes neglect to ask how we are expected to respond to that grace. How are we to accept the gift with integrity? How are we to live the faith we receive? What does Jesus want us to do as a result of the free gift of God? Christmas is a perfect time to ask these kinds of questions, because this is the time of year when we tend to pay a little more attention to the situation of those around us.
When the crowd asks, “What then should we do?” and John answers, “Whoever has two coats should give one away!” Duh! The tax collectors ask, “What should we do?” “Collect no more than the right amount!” The soldiers ask “And we, what should we do?” John replies, “Be happy with your wages and stop using threats to extort money from others!” The crowd wants to know what John means by producing fruit of repentance, and he tells them to simply GIVE. Giving, for John, is proof of real conversion. Being generous with others shows that we are cognizant of Who it is who has blessed us with our own immense wealth. We might sometimes think we are not wealthy, but when we give to someone else, we realize the depth and breadth of all the wealth with which we have been blessed.
John has some specific questions from at least two groups in the crowd. Tax collectors were especially despised by the people of Israel: they were hired by the Roman authorities to collect the taxes for Caesar from the Jews, and anything they collected above what was due to the Romans, they were allowed to keep. So not only do they represent the authority of the foreign occupying power, but they also tended to inflate their tax bills in order to get rich at the expense of their own people.
But notice, John doesn’t tell them to quit their profession and become Benedictine monks. He only instructs them that they keep their profession free from greed and self-gratification. Do the work assigned, collect the correct amount, but no more. Treat people with respect and don’t use your authority to take advantage of anyone.
And to the soldiers who asked John what to do, he remains realistic. He doesn’t tell them to quit their jobs and join a farm collective in Brazil. He simply tells them to do their work with integrity, and to remember thatGod is the one in charge, and that God’s commands are more important than any others.
As we approach the emotionally rich and nostalgic culmination of this holy season of Advent, John’s message of tough love is as necessary for you and me as it was for the crowds of his day. We’re preparing to celebrate the coming of God’s Son, Emmanuel, God With Us, into our world, coming to free us from all that holds us in bondage. We’re preparing to celebrate the coming of the one who gave us himself as the clear message from God that we are daughters and sons of the One God. We have a great dignity because of our divine image that we bear, and although we may be somewhat tarnished, we have been given the grace of salvation all the same. OK, so we still have our egos to contend with and we are often tempted to just do things our way instead of God’s way, but we no longer need to be enslaved to our limitations and desires. Through the gift of God’s grace, we can choose to move forward on the path of transformation, seeking God above everything else.
We don’t have to quit our jobs or come out of retirement, or go to seminary in order to live our lives as Christians called to continual renewal. In all that we say and in all that we do, we can let the presence of Christ shine in our lives and rule in our hearts. So on this Gaudete Sunday, “Rejoice Sunday”, when so many are feeling so far removed from joy, when so many are feeling overwhelmed by the darkness of what has happened to them this week, when some are even doubting their faith in God—WE can stand in for them. OUR faith can carry them. OUR light can be a candle in their darkness. For some, these are the best things we can give them right now.
In this season of Advent, as we prepare for the coming of the Lord, let’s keep focusing on bearing fruit worthy of our ongoing conversion. If we can do that one thing, then instead of Christmas being just an annual cultural celebration that distracts us for a few weeks every December, it will continue to be a source of spiritual power every day.

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About frmichelrcc

I have a degree in religious studies from the University of Wisconsin, did graduate work in theology at St. Norbert College, De Pere, Wisconsin, and also at St. Paul's University in Ottawa. I have been a Benedictine since I first professed as an oblate in 1982, making final profession in 2009. I have worked as vocations director in a large diocese in the mid-west and am a spiritual director in the Benedictine tradition. I have 3 sons, one of whom is now in God's loving embrace in eternity, and 2 grandsons, Bradley and Jacob.
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