Every year at this time, it seems to me, we find ourselves listening to scriptures that get us thinking about what it means to actually be Christian! It comes with the scriptures that we used to focus our preparations to greet, once more, God-among-us, or Emmanuel.
The imagery of our first reading today from Isaiah is quite consoling and uplifting. It speaks of the wolf and the lamb getting along together, the leopard and the kid goat enjoying one another’s company, and the calf and the young lion in each other’s company, enjoying peace together, “with a little child to guide them.” These animals who would ordinarily not be in one another's company, at least not without some violence unfolding, are instead living in peace together. This is a sure sign of the in-breaking of God’s peace, justice and life. It is beautifully powerful imagery that asserts the dominion of God over all creation, and with that dominion coming peace, goodwill and goodness. The world is transformed and natural enemies become companions.
The gospel, by contrast, seems to speak of disturbance and even upheaval: “Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” John the Baptist is on a roll. It seems as though he’s calling out all those who are curious, who are perhaps “hedging their bets” in terms of salvation. They live decent lives, perhaps, maybe even good lives, but they are only doing what they must. They are content to fulfil the prescriptions of their religious laws and customs, but John admonishes them.
John insists on the fruitfulness of a person’s life saying more about what they really believe and hold to be true, rather than any outward appearances or practices. Today we might hear John say to us: “Show me how your faith really makes a difference in your life and in the lives of others. Do not presume to say to yourselves that you are Catholic, that you go to Church on Sunday. God can raise up church-goers from the very stones.” John would look to us to identify in our lives the values of Jesus as he lived them in the gospel: humility, compassion, respect and integrity. A life lived without these values cannot be considered to be the life of a disciple of Jesus.
Perhaps like many people, I can’t assert that my life is lived with humility, compassion, respect and integrity. I have to confess that some days I live with a deeper awareness of the realities of my own life and the lives of those around me. But on other days, my humility leaves a lot to be desired. Similarly, there are some days when my heart is filled with compassion for others, but there are also days when I am tired and cranky, worn and unable to be considerate of others and their needs. There are days when I live my life being entirely respectful of the people I meet and encounter, but there are other days when I am inclined to inappropriate and indefensible judgment of others. And so, it goes without saying, then, that I am not yet an integrated disciple of Jesus. I am, however, desirous of such integration in my life.
John’s words then, in today’s gospel, are an encouragement to me - albeit not a gentle and “warm, fuzzy” one - to reconsider how I live my discipleship of Jesus in the concrete realities of my life. I am invited by his words to think about what it really looks like to be a disciple of Jesus in Northridge, in 2019. The fruitfulness of my life is a starting point that allows me to consider where I have room for improvement in my life of faith. John speaks of bringing a “baptism of repentance,” but he looks forward to a new baptism, a baptism of “the Holy Spirit and fire.” The promise of cleansing and purification is inherent in the imagery of the fire, and the empowering and gifting is manifested in the coming of the Holy Spirit.
Traditionally we speak of the seven gifts of the Spirit as wisdom, understanding, counsel, fortitude, knowledge, piety and fear (or awe) of the Lord. The gifts of the Holy Spirit are God-centered, in that they ground us in our relationship with God. For example, the gift of wisdom is what allows us to understand the importance of others and particularly the importance of the centrality of God in our life.
The fruits of the Spirit are traditionally enumerated as love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, generosity, gentleness, faithfulness, modesty,self-control and chastity. We read them in Galatians 5:22-23, and they can be understood as the observable behaviors (fruits) of people who are trying to live in the life of the Holy Spirit, as faithful disciples of Jesus.
As we move through Advent, and prepare ourselves for the great celebration of the Feast of the Incarnation, perhaps this is a good time for us to consider and refocus on our efforts to live as faithful disciples of Jesus, enlivened in the power of the Holy Spirit.