“What should we do?” ask those crowding around John the Baptist in one of our Advent readings. It’s about as straightforward and important a question as one could ask. The crowd has heard enough of John already to know that an event of great consequence is on the way. How should we prepare for it?
The answers given first to the crowd at large, then to tax-collectors and soldiers who come forward to be baptized by John amount to this: be ready to dispossess yourselves and stop being on the take. Okay, but it’s fair to wonder about the connection between these quite specific admonitions and the breaking in of the “new thing” prophesied by John. What John tells the tax collectors and the soldiers is hardly aimed at upending the social order. He essentially tells them to do their jobs without exploiting others for their own benefit; be an honest tax-collector and a soldier worthy of trust.
It seems modest enough. But it is to be taken seriously. Preparing the way of the Lord is always a call to get one’s house in order. To acknowledge that not all is well and that I bear responsibility for the less than straight paths in my life requires real humility. Confronting the truth about myself, with all of the light and shadows that make up that picture, is a necessary part of putting the reason back into the season, as we say.
Why should this be the case? First of all, an honest inventory of our lives brings us to see that we can’t simply save ourselves. We need help, we need grace, we need a savior. Doesn’t part of our housecleaning involve a quieting of the noise in our lives, so that we can begin to hear the sound of other voices that call us out of ourselves? This is especially important at Christmas. Surely God chooses to come to us a baby, for one thing, to deflate our silly self-importance and to expand our capacity to wonder and to love.
May I make one practical suggestion. For some of us, celebrating the sacrament of reconciliation, the Church’s given form of housecleaning, may be just the ticket for a renewal of heart and mind this Christmas.