At the start of a new year, resolutions mark a kind of new beginning, to better ourselves—more exercise, less junk food; more substantial reading, less mindless entertainment; more productive activity, less wasted time; more organization, less sloppiness; more purpose and direction, less wishy-washiness. At the end of the year, when we look back upon our efforts, we can determine whether it’s been a success or a failure. Did I lose or gain weight, more muscle or fat? Did I spend more time collecting inconsequential trivia or really useful information? Did I accomplish challenging goals or did I succumb to laziness? Did I make the best of my situation or am I still whining about the rotten hand I was dealt? Have I advanced toward my best potential or have I stagnated in apathy? As I look back upon the past year, am I a better person? Am I a better Christian?
Every Advent, John the Baptist proclaims, “Repent! The Kingdom of heaven is at hand!” We might take seriously the invitation to examine our hearts and find attitudes, habits, and patterns of thinking that conflict with Jesus’ teaching and example. We might even approach Advent with an actual spiritual plan—more prayer and reflection on scripture and the meaning of Advent; patience and kindness in greater measure; less cynicism and criticism; more gratitude for everyday blessings; less selfishness, less greed; less arrogance, less self-indulgence. We have now arrived at the second week of Advent. Have we made any noticeable progress in our Advent preparation? Or are we still right where we began? Still distracted at prayer, still bothered by little annoyances, still doing a lot but not really getting much done. Not much more patient than last week or the week before, not much more forgiving either. Still critical, still cynical, not much more grateful, not much more self-restrained, still selfish, still greedy, still full of hot air. Nowhere near the kind of holiness Jesus asks of us.
Some have already given up. Some never even tried. Forget Advent. Too hard. Let’s skip ahead to Christmas. It’s so much more upbeat and exciting. Mindless busy work is always easier than fixing bad habits and prejudices. It’s been Christmas for some people since the day after Thanksgiving, maybe even the day after Halloween. And it all comes to an end on Christmas day, the day it should really just be starting. Just go with the flow, sing Christmas carols, shop for presents, send Christmas cards, bake cookies, decorate the house. Pay no attention to John the Baptist yelling at the crowd. He’s missing all the fun, no presents to buy, no cards to send, no cooking and cleaning and decorating to do. Tell him to mind his own beeswax, eat something less weird than locusts and honey, and take a shower every now and again.
John the Baptist is easy to ignore. “Repent,” he proclaims. In his own ministry later, Jesus would proclaim the same message. Yet what does it really mean? A simple definition says to repent is to “feel deep sorrow for one’s faults and mistakes, to know we can choose to do better next time, and to resolve not to continue making the same mistakes.” If we are honest with ourselves, it is not difficult to point out those aspects of our lives that could use some improvement. Yet with each passing year, we are less and less inclined to get serious about it. We fall back into complacency or get discouraged by our lack of progress. We discover that spiritual growth and improvement is much harder than making a good first impression. Since no one is truly aware of our internal struggles, we don’t get the occasional pat on the back to motivate us.
Good intentions abound. I always want to do better. I make promises to take better care of my health, to eat more healthy food, to get more frequent exercise. I promise to get better grades, to keep in touch with friends, to visit family. Sometimes I actually succeed. But many of them remain intentions, feelings, wishes, and resolutions.
John the Baptist invites us to go beyond wishing and resolving. As he stood by the banks of the Jordan offering a baptism of repentance, he noticed some Pharisees and Sadducees, important men in the community, strict and faithful observers of the law. “Do not presume to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father.’ For I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones … [Better still,] produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance!” It is not our wishing and resolving that makes us better Christians, but actually reforming our lives and doing as Jesus taught and lived.
We are a week closer to Christmas. We are constantly being tempted to give up the waiting and preparing and begin the celebrating. But our joy is often shallow when our preparation is half-hearted. How many Advents do we need to heed Jesus’ call to reform our ways? How many more will we be given? Getting ready for Jesus’ return at the end of our lives is rarely our concern during Advent. Instead, we agonize about this Christmas looking, smelling, sounding, tasting, and feeling like Christmases past. What about reforming our unchristian attitudes and behaviors? Do we want to be better human beings, better parents to our children, better children to our parents, better sisters and brothers, better friends, better Christians? Do we concern ourselves about making the world a better place for others? Are we looking to draw closer to God? Do we heed the voice crying out in the desert, “Prepare the way of the Lord?”
Until we embrace the challenge to reform our attitudes, behaviors, and patterns of thinking, we will end up next year right where we are now. But if we decide we want to grow in holiness and live a more authentic Christian witness by giving up selfishness and sin, and turning a new leaf, seeking forgiveness for our sins, and being reconciled with one another, then Advent this year can be better, and Christmas can be even better still.
Rolo B Castillo © 2022