“Prepare the way of the Lord, make straight his paths.”
– Matthew 3:3
During the time of John the Baptist, ceremonial washings were a regular Jewish practice. Immersions were largely reserved for the baptism of Gentiles into the Jewish faith. John’s use of this ceremony would have been a radical one, essentially communicating to the Jews that they were as distant from God as the Gentiles, and in need of the same amount of repentance (if not more). If his choice of residence, clothing and food did not already set him apart as a prophet, John’s unique title of “the Baptist” would be no less well-deserved for doing something which no prophet before him had done. John the Baptist also calls to mind the desert prophet Elijah – not just because both dressed in camel-hair and a leather loin cloth (Matthew 3:4, 2 Kings 1:9) but they both preached a call to repentance.
The Greek word for repentance in this passage is Μετανοεῖτε or metanoeite. It refers to a process of considering our behaviour then changing our minds. It is the change in our minds that leads to change in our hearts and in our lives. Repentance must be more than just a feeling of sorrow in our hearts – true repentance is the conviction of the mind and will to change the direction of our lives. We may have been drawn to God’s message of Love and Truth, but it is in the living of His Word through our everyday decisions that the true power of the Gospel is unleashed in our lives.
Just as roads are built for the arrival of kings and red carpets laid to welcome guests-of-honour, we are called to “prepare [the] way for the Lord” in the wilderness of our hearts. Our daily decisions, simple as they may seem, such as not to tell white lies or not to participate in gossip, are what – slowly but surely – fills the valleys and levels the mountains to “make his paths straight” (Isaiah 40:3-4). The season of Advent is ripe for us to prepare ourselves. However we so caught up in the cooking-cleaning-decorating-buying-wrapping that we overlook preparing our hearts to receive the greatest gift of all at Christmas?
If so, today’s Gospel gives us another good reason to repent because “the kingdom of Heaven is close at hand” (Matthew 3:2). What an encouragement it is that we do not have far to go, that our acts of repentance can bring us right to the door of the kingdom of Heaven, and open it for us. And we have tasted this in the Sacrament of Reconciliation; when we turn to God in repentance, He returns to us in loving mercy and forgiveness.
It is paramount that our repentance should come from our hearts – that it be genuine and true. If not, we will be no better than the Pharisees and Sadducees, that “brood of vipers”, who came to John the Baptist hoping they could avoid the final judgement without true repentance. This would be similar to those of us who have received baptism, but struggle to live out in a concrete way our profession of faith at baptism. It may be something as simple as being reluctant to make the sign of the cross in front of friends and colleagues, or attending the Eucharistic Celebration as a matter of duty and receiving communion in a routine way. Where then are our “fruit[s] in keeping with repentance”, as John the Baptist demands (Matthew 3:8)? Baptism is not a get-out-of-jail-free card. That is what the Pharisees and Sadducees believed they had by being the chosen people of God. Baptism alone is not sufficient to save us. Our faith must be a living faith, not one of lip-service, if it is to be anything more than a membership card.
True repentance is rooted in the heart, and from it springs fruit which gives new life. When we say we are sorry, but persist in old sins, we may be tall and beautiful like a tree that flourishes on the outside but bears no fruits that yield new life. John the Baptist is clear that such trees, no matter how strong or gifted or old, will be “cut down and thrown on the fire”, and that “even now the axe is being laid to the root” (Matthew 3:10).
Where do you go to hear God speaking to you? Have you heard the “voice of one that cries out in the desert” calling you to repentance (Matthew 1:3)? The wilderness of our hearts where God reveals Himself, and where our treasure is hidden.