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A change of heart
December 12, 2011
by Fr. Tom Balluff, St. Mary of Czestochowa Church, Delano

The desert is a foul place. It is a place where little, to nothing grows. It is a hard place, where it is difficult to live.

In the Bible story, St. John the Baptist comes out of many years in the desert to proclaim to us that the Messiah, the Christ, the Anointed One is coming, in the spirit of Elijah.

The Jewish people of Jesus’ time knew the prophesy found in the Old Testament of Elijah coming before the advent of the Messiah.

Today, we hear St John the Baptist, in the spirit of Elijah, make some bold claims that most of the people believed, and yet most of the Pharisees and religious leaders did not.

In Carmelite Spirituality, the desert or wilderness is a place where all of us most go if we are to advance in the spiritual life. It is a place where we spend time in prayer; where we let go of all that hinders us in advancing toward

with God. It is a stripping of all that is not of God.

We go into the desert to do battle with the enemy. It can be a dry, arid place without much water or seemingly, nourishment. God can allow us to experience that darkness, emptiness, abandonment we all need to go through in order to grow into a mature faith.

union

God teaches us to love Him not for what He gives us, but to love Him for who He is. It cannot be about the consolations, those things that make it easy for us to love God or make it easy to follow Him. We follow God because He is the Creator, all loving, and desires us all to be with Him in heaven – not because He gives us everything we need as we want it.

Faith is made perfect while under duress, while being tested. Faith becomes perfect, like fire-tried gold. God wants us to be free to choose Him with our free will. If He were to make it easy with consolations, we would be choosing the consolations, not God.

God’s consolations are, in a sense, His attempts to wean us away from those things that distract us. The desert teaches us what’s important in life. It strips us of everything that keeps us away from God. Suffering can either move us toward right living or, if we choose, it can move us towards anger and bitterness. It helps us choose one way or the other. The desert or the wilderness is much the same.

John the Baptist invites us to prepare for the coming of the Messiah by doing penance. St. John is the one who points to continuity between the Old and New Testaments. He is the last of the prophets, and the first of the witnesses to Jesus.

This baptism by St. John, known as the precursor, is not what we know as Christian baptism. Rather, it is a form of penitential rite. It shows us that we need to have an attitude of faith in Christ, the Messiah, the source of grace, and voluntary detachment from our sins.

Those who sought John’s baptism admitted publicly that they were sinners. This rite St. John performed announced forgiveness of sins through a change of heart, and helped to remove obstacles that were in the way of a person’s acceptance of the Kingdom of God. Many prostitutes and tax collectors believed in John and were forgiven because of their change of heart.

St. John the Baptist also tells us that he baptizes with water, but the one who is coming will baptize us with the Holy Spirit. Jesus’ baptism with the Holy Spirit is accomplished by God alone in the depths of man’s heart. The Holy Spirit will pour out His graces, transforming the inner life of those open to receiving Him.

John calls us all into the desert, into the wilderness but not to go alone. By calling the Israelites, and us into the desert, he is calling us to let go of false hopes and manmade security, to learn how to hope and trust in God alone.

St. John lived what he preached. By his lifestyle, his dress and eating habits, he showed the meaning of life is not to be found in an abundance of material possessions, but in relationship with God.

Simplicity of life and detachment from unnecessary cares and worries free the heart for a personal relationship with God. A trip into the desert is the first step in true repentance. It means abandoning our usual comforts, and putting ourselves in a situation where God can easily reach us.

This advent season extends to us the call of John the Baptist to repent and confess our sins in preparation for the One who is to come. It calls us to simplify our lives and detach ourselves from additional material possessions.

It calls us to open ourselves to the opportunity to rediscover our total dependence on God. Then, we will be on the way to true repentance.