06 December 2010
Change Your Life
The readings this Second Sunday of Advent are chockfull of contradictions: a shoot sprouting from a stump; wolves and lambs living in peace; and prophets preaching in the same vein about God’s offer of hope and warning of judgment.
The Stump of Jesse. Let’s begin with the stump. It is what remains of a cut tree. As a symbol, it evokes loss, faded glory and desolation. It is the symbol of the house of David whose lineage was assured kingship over Israel through generations. Generations of bad kings and corrupt rule have reduced the once proud and mighty house of David to a stump.
It is the symbol of Israel, God ‘s chosen people, whose infidelity to their covenant with Yahweh has led to their ruin. First there were the civil wars and the divided kingdom, then came the Assyrians and the first period of exile, then the Babylonians and the second period of exile, then the Greeks, and finally the Romans. This favored nation has been reduced to a stump.
It is the symbol of broken humanity, graced in creation but enslaved by sin, and bound by suffering and death. Humanity, it may be said, is also reduced to a stump.
The Coming of Emmanuel. Yet out of the darkness and loss, comes a presence of hope. If Israel is unfaithful, Yahweh is not, He does not abandon His people. Is 11,1 says: “a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse, and from his roots a bud shall blossom.” We sing of this shoot sprouting during Advent:
“O come, O come, Emmanuel
And ransom captive Israel
That mourns in lonely exile here
Until the Son of God appear
Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel
Shall come to thee, O Israel.”
This part of the Book of Isaiah is called the “Emmanuel prophecies” for it foretells of a coming savior named Emmanuel – which means “God is with us”. When He comes, divinity will redeem humanity, grace will dispel sin and death, creation will attain a new mode of existence. The prophet Isaiah presents his vision of a renewed creation with vivid imagery, a slew of “signs of contradiction”:
“Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play by the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain.” (Is 11,6-9)
The Message of John. What is our role in all these? We are the recipients of this message of hope and this new order of creation. In order to enter into this new existence with the “God-who-is-with-us” we need to heed the message of John the Baptist in Mt 3,2: “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
In Mt 3,2, the Greek word used is metanoeite, which simply means “change your mind”. Contextually, John’s message means “change your life”, magbagong-buhay. Changing one’s mind is a good starting point, especially if we read again the First Reading. Is 11,9 concludes Isaiah’s vivid Kingdom imagery: “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord, as water covers the sea.” The renewal of humanity, indeed of the whole creation, will happen when we change our mind and seek the wisdom of God.
Here’s a little story: A pilgrim in medieval Europe once set on a journey to the Holy land. He planned his pilgrimage well. He brought just enough provision before begging for food along the way. He chose which places to stop, and set a reasonable schedule to follow. Everything went along his well-laid plan until the strains of the pilgrimage began to take effect. Begging for food and finding a good place to stay for the night were not that easy after all. And the journey took more time than he thought. As the days of his pilgrimage went by, he grew more tired, hungry and cold, but he pursued his goal with single-minded devotion. One day, another pilgrim came by, this one looked hungrier and shabbier in clothes than him. With a sigh he heard what he half-expected this fellow pilgrim would say to him. “Brother, could you offer me some of your food? I haven’t eaten for days.” Grudgingly he gave him a small piece from the loaf of bread he had at that time. And just as the bread touched the hand of the stranger, he transformed into an angel in dazzling white clothes. The angel handed him back the piece of bread only now it was a piece of gold. Then the angel vanished. And the pilgrim was left repenting how he should have given the stranger the best of what he could offer.
What God intends to give us is infinitely greater than what we have right now. Our best laid plans are as nothing compared to His plan of salvation. Even as we think we are already walking in His path, He continues to show us a more perfect way to live.
Abbot Thomas Keating, in his book, The Human Condition: Contemplation and Transformation, says to repent means to “change the direction from which you are seeking happiness”. Indeed, we spend much of our lives looking for happiness through paths that can never produce it. Our misery is produced by looking for love in all the wrong places – in fleeting joys, in various addictions, in unhealthy relationships.
The Judgment of God. Where we are right now, and where we hope to be, are determined by the choices that we make in life. Here we catch a glimpse on the nature of the judgment of God. Both prophets, Isaiah and John the Baptist, don’t mince words about the judgment of God.
Some people think that a God who judges, one who rewards and also condemns people to eternity of hell, is incompatible with the idea of a loving God. They are wrong in their thinking, or are being misled by the devil. God’s love is not only about unconditional acceptance, it is also about justice and a great respect for our free will and intellect. God will not force people to enter His Kingdom if they don’t want to.
Nor could we claim entitlement to salvation merely by virtue of our baptism. Baptism provides us with the gateway to salvation, the entry into the great community of believers, our fellow pilgrims toward the Kingdom. But we have to take the pilgrimage. John the Baptist warned the Pharisees and Sadducees in his time who also came to be baptized no to presume to be saved by virtue of their being children of Abraham.
The judgment of God means that those who don’t choose the Kingdom by the way they live their lives, will not enter into it. Hell is a state where the love of God is nowhere to be found. It is not about God punishing the unworthy, for we all are unworthy. It is about confirming the consequences of whether we chose to follow God’s will or our own.