When a doctor diagnoses cancer, she must act decisively and immediately. Every cancer cell must be either removed through surgery, burned away through radiation or poisoned through chemotherapy. If we did not know what the doctor was doing, we might think her cruel for cutting the patient open or for pumping chemicals into him. It is only when we realize how dangerous the situation is that we can accept how drastic and radical the cure must likewise be.
One of the central figures of Advent, John the Baptist, makes his appearance in today’s gospel. He is among the most sharp tongued characters in the New Testament and must have been an intimidating figure in his camel hair garment. When addressing the Pharisees and Sadducees, he calls them a "brood of vipers" as they approach him for baptism. It was a shocking insult to hurl at men known for their commitment to the Law. It may have made some in the crowd wonder, “If that is what he thinks of good men, what will he think of me?!”.
The Baptist’s words sound cruel and hurtful. But he wanted to be clear with all those who approached him - both the religious leaders and the common people - just what they were committing to by being baptized. They were preparing for the coming of one who would bring judgment. Whatever sins they harbor would make them unready to welcome the one who was coming to baptize in fire. If they were approaching John only to make an outward show of repentance with no interior conversion, it would do them no good. They must be ready to embrace a radical change of mind and heart if they are to be a part of this mighty work of God. And so he urges them, "Give some evidence that you mean to reform!"
What is true for those who were awaiting the coming of the Christ is true of us who have already been baptized in him. We cannot accommodate any sin in our lives any more than the body can accommodate a little cancer. Society cannot tolerate a little injustice, and marriages cannot survive with a little infidelity. Evil destroys whomever welcomes it. Once we recognize sin in ourselves, in our society and in our Church, radical surgery is indicated. "The ax is laid to the root of the tree. Every tree that is not fruitful will be cut down and thrown into the fire." If the words sound harsh, it is only because God knows that any evil we tolerate will eventually strangle us and prevent us from bearing fruit.
Now the doctor can only extract the malignancy. She cannot put health back into our bodies. God, on the other hand, not only roots out the evil in our heart but replaces it with the power to live a good and holy life. This new health floods our souls when we receive the "gifts of the Holy Spirit" which Isaiah lists in the first reading as the marks of the Messiah:
"a spirit of wisdom and of understanding;
a spirit of counsel and of strength;
a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord;
and his delight will be the fear of the Lord."
We receive these gifts through our baptism and confirmation which are the "baptism with fire" which John the Baptist foretold that the Messiah would grant to all those who believed in him. They are not only found in prophets, canonized saints or religious leaders. They become the marks of all those who have been baptized in Jesus Christ. They are the new vitality of all who have put sin aside in favor of a life of faith.
When we welcome those gifts and put them to use in our lives, then we begin to bear the "fruit of the Spirit" which Paul describes in Galatians 5:22. "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long-suffering, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control."
These are the fruits which God looks for in those who follow Jesus. These are the fruits which will spring up in us once sin is uprooted from our hearts, and the Holy Spirit replaces them with his gifts. Through them, real health and vigor return to us as individuals, as a society and as a Church.
Jesus is often called the Divine Physician because of his power to heal and to free us from our sins. He diagnoses our wrongdoing and prescribes the cure. Though the treatment and recovery can be long and painful, we can be confident that the outcome will lead to peace and joy. We are in the hands of a gentle doctor. Saint Augustine in his Confessions puts it in a beautiful way: "My weaknesses are many and grave, many and grave indeed, but more abundant still is your medicine."
The call to repentance and the challenge of conversion can be intimidating. We grow comfortable in our lives and want to keep any change at arms length. It is easy for us to convince ourselves, like the Pharisees and the Sadducees, that we are already doing enough. But God has so much more planned for us than just comfort and security. He wants us to live a full and abundant life marked not by complacency but by joy, wisdom, peace, understanding and courage. Conversion and penance can be tough medicines to swallow, but the healing and wholeness they bring make any temptation to slide back into selfishness and apathy unthinkable.
These weeks leading up to Christmas are a time for us as individuals and as a community to uproot whatever is not of God and to recognize that no good can come from allowing sin and evil a place in our hearts or homes. It is a time to turn to our Divine Physician, Jesus, for the radical surgery only He can perform and the infusion of health and vitality only he can give. By conversion and penance, we make a straight path for the one who alone can bring joy and enduring peace into our lives. In that way, the coming of Jesus will be not a historical fact of the past or a long off, future anticipation, but an everyday event bearing fruit in our world.
(this originally appeared in Connect! magazine)