Catholic Diocese of Spokane, Washington

From the

Official News Magazine of the Diocese of Spokane

Eric Meisfjord, Editor
P.O. Box 48, Spokane WA 99210
(509) 358-7340; FAX: (509) 358-7302

Get with it!

by Father Michael Savelesky, for the Inland Register

(From the December 19, 2013 edition of the Inland Register)

Father Michael Savelesky These weeks of Advent preparation for the great Feast of Christmas – and especially the Sunday readings at Mass – seem to echo a common call: to convert. Now, if we were in Latin class, the teacher would stop to explain the roots of this taken-for-granted word, “con-vert.” It spring from two Latin roots: the prefix con, meaning “with,” and the verb vertere, meaning “to turn.” Helpful or not? To convert means “to turn with.” In slang, to “get with it.”

This little morsel of knowledge permits a more correct perspective on Advent’s focus and what the Church’s liturgical wisdom bids us consider as the world makes its increasingly mad dash to presents, dinner spreads, and chubby people in red suits. Usually when we hear the word “convert” we may think of someone who has changed religious denominations. In one sense this is a correct use of the word, but it is far from its root meaning. Advent certainly is not a call to change religious affiliations! But it is a time of true conversion.

The key figures in the Advent season are St. John the Baptist and Miriam of Nazareth – the Blessed Virgin Mary. The first calls us to conversion; the other manifests in her personal life the perfect example of a convert. To convert entails more than backing away from sin or eliminating spiritually destructive habits and attitudes. John the Baptist’s cry on Jordan’s bank, which we Catholics hear repeated in the Liturgy of the Word every Second Sunday of Advent, was far more than an appeal to quit sinning. It was more than a demand to pay more attention to God. Turning to God is but one of the first steps in Advent conversion. True conversion calls for more than obedience of God and a multitude of commandments and religious practices which may or may not have their origin in the Divine Will.

Authentic conversion – the Biblical type – calls for a turning with God. “Get with it! Get with God” is the Baptist’s cry. The scene on Jordan’s banks is ever so faithful to the true Latin roots of the word convert. John’s call is an appeal to get in step with God’s plan of salvation. He certainly called people to cease sinning, yes. He called them to pay attention to God in their lives, yes. But more importantly, the prophet John summoned a radical, open-hearted faithfulness to God’s unfolding plan of salvation. To convert is to walk into the embracing arms of God’s unknown grace and mystery. To open one’s life to the saving love of God who is our life and our destiny.

Is not our Blessed Mother Mary the perfect example of such a convert? Conceived without original sin, Mary obviously had no alienation from God to correct in her life. Steeped in the practice of her Jewish faith tradition, however, she certainly had developed a devotional life which paid attention to God. The depth of her conversion came to the fore at the Annunciation when she was asked to be the mother of the Savior. By the grace of God she was free from the nasty tug of original sin, but she remained blessed with personal moral freedom, as we all are. The creation of a sinless vessel for his Word was God’s unique plan for her life, but her “yes” was critical for its fulfillment. Would she “turn with” the plan of God? A “no” would not necessarily have been sinful, but the completion of God’s plan depended upon a free and loving response. Would Mary convert?

The Advent season prepares us for the celebration of the result of Mary’s fiat – yes, that’s another Latin word! – “let it be done.” Her willingness to cooperate with God’s plan for the salvation of the world has allowed our participation in the gift of salvation in her Son, Jesus. Her willingness to convert – to “turn with” the way of God – made it possible for the Word of God to become incarnate in her womb, sharing intimately in our human condition in every manner except sin.

If Advent is to be a fruitful time for us, our lives must be responsive to John the Baptist’s call and the witness of the Blessed Virgin Mary. In the Word of God proclaimed in faith communities throughout the world again this season, John calls us all to a time of real conversion. Yes, there may be sin in our lives from which our hearts beg liberation. Yes, the weeks of Advent should be a time for more prayer and reflection – time to pay attention to God and to get into the right disposition of heart for the celebration of Christmas. Advent must be more than a countdown of the shopping days until Christmas. If we take our faith seriously, Advent most importantly is a time for opening our hearts to the mystery of God’s love, for letting God lead us, and not the other way around. Advent is a time for questioning prayer: What do you want of me, Lord? What is the unique way you are asking my cooperation in the unfolding plan of your Kingdom? Where do you seek my free and loving “yes”?

It’s risky business to be a true convert. To convert calls for a free decision of the heart and a willingness to be led into God’s way. It calls for a radical response, a response from the roots of our being. Mary has shown us how radical our response needs to be. Mary’s “yes” made all the difference in the world. Our “yes” makes a difference, too. Only Mary was asked to be the Mother of the Savior, but our conversion is needed if the Good News of God’s Kingdom is to be born anew. Christmas is a celebration for true converts!

(Father Savelesky, moderator of the curia for the diocese, is pastor of the parishes in Oakesdale, Rosalia, St. John, and Tekoa.)

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