Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington
Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane
Deacon Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302
At the Jordan once again
by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register
(From the Dec. 2, 2010 edition of the Inland Register)
Here we go again; we are back on the bank of the Jordan River. The words from an old Advent song echo in our minds and hearts as we prepare yet another time for the beautiful celebration of the Birth of our Lord Ė ďOn Jordanís bank the Baptistís cry, announcing that the Lord is nigh!Ē Reminding us that the happiness of Christmas is centered on salvation and Godís gift of Jesus, these words call us to conversion. Christmas without it Ė conversion, that is Ė is but tinsel and glitter.
Every Advent the proclamation of the Gospel takes us back to our beginnings, not so much historically as spiritually. We return to the story of John, that disturbing prophet on the bank of the Jordan River. There we find ourselves entering anew into the grace of salvation which is not yet fully complete in our lives.
Indeed, Jesus has come (thatís why we celebrate Christmas). And Jesus will come (someday) in full, final glory. But Jesus also needs to come to us now, in this time and place where we live and carry out our daily responsibilities.
John the Baptistís call to conversion was Ė and still is Ė a message for all to hear. His call to conversion brought people to the bank of the Jordan where, confessing their sins, they made a commitment to open their lives to whatever great things God had in store for them. Their ďconfessionĒ was also a public admission of poverty, brokenness, and need. To accept Johnís baptism on Jordanís bank was a statement of faith in God who alone could perfect, save, and make whole.
In Johnís day undoubtedly there were those who ignored the call of the prophet. Other gods occupied their minds and imprisoned their hearts. These lost souls expended time and energy pouring their artificial hearts (that is, their time, energy and money) into the worship of power, prestige and things which, despite their appearance, never are able to transform heart and bring true salvation.
Most probably, there were also those standing around who already had ďgot religionĒ but for whom Johnís call was disturbingly disruptive of their daily life pattern and the comfortableness of the exercise of ritualized religion. There moneymakers, shopkeepers, students and business people of Johnís day were just too busy and preoccupied with the pressing responsibilities of daily life to have time for deeper, truer faith: the realm of commitment and personal spiritual growth and development.
Although not as distancing as the pagan idolaters around them, for this group Johnís call to conversion was just as irrelevant. It was at least too challenging. For them, faith, religion, church and the like remained a commodity of convenience, something to be engaged in when opportune. John might as well have preached to the sagebrush.
Two notable groups of people did come to Jordanís bank, hearing Johnís call to repentance: the Pharisees and the poor.
With the vehemence that only a prophet can muster, John lambasts the Pharisees, however, for the blindness and deceitfulness of their pretence. Conversion, he insisted, was not a matter of show, but deep, radical inner change of heart. The Pharisees who stood on Jordanís bank were well-versed in the practices of show, but had no interest in the new heart God sought to create in them. ďBrood of vipers,Ē John calls them Ė suckers who sap the strength of the faith community and compromise the public integrity of Godís people. Ouch!
The poor who came to John were not saints. They were sinners. Their poverty was found not so much in their pocketbooks or purses as in their hearts. They knew their phoniness and game-playing. They were well aware of their brokenness and imperfection. The clothes they wore may have shown them to be homemakers, shopkeepers, students, business people Ė perhaps even a Pharisee or two. However, their hearts bore the common, recognizable markings of the truly poor: the hurt of rejection, the pain of broken or disappointing relationships, the loneliness of being ignored and belittled, the emotional scars of abuse, and dysfunctional days of childhood rearing.
Poverty has no common dress and dwells at no specific address. Nevertheless, it does have a single voice: the voice of neediness and want.
The poor came to Jordanís bank, admitting their need for Godís gift of salvation, and confessing their sins (their phony paths of fulfillment). Their baptism gave witness to a change of heart, the gift of self back to God in an open, generous statement of readiness for the work of the Kingdom.
Only God can save, and they knew it. Only God can save, and they wanted it. Only God can save, and God did it Ė in Jesus, born of Mary, one quiet night in Bethlehem.
Well-paid guides still try to point out to curious tourist where John presumably stood on Jordanís bank. We will never know if their ďspotĒ is true or not. It is not important. What is important for us this and every Advent is to recognize and struggle with that same call to conversion uttered by our Saviorís cousin centuries ago.
The struggle is important, not because our age is more sinful or corrupt, but because beneath the dress of show and pretense we all experience the same poverty: the need of salvation.
The idolater within us and the idolaters among us will want to turn to the masks of materialism and its other forms of emptiness. The homemakers and shopkeepers within and among us will want to seek comfort in a deceitful status quo, fulfilling obligations (even those of practiced religion) but not growing. The Pharisee within and among us, likewise, will want to react only to what feels or appears nice.
The poor within and among us will come to Jordanís bank with humbled heart and honest want. We need and want life. Our baptism of conversion becomes a way of living Ėa constant, trusting and radical openness to the wonderful ways of God. To make such a commitment and to pursue such a way of life will not be easy, but it is the only way to true life, Godís life.
Conversion is a walk with God, and in our walk we are not alone. Look around. Who stands on Jordanís bank?
(Father Savelesky is the diocese's Director of Deacon Formation and pastor of Assumption Parish in Spokane.)
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