No turning back

“Repent”, this is the first word that we hear from John the Baptist in our Gospel today. It is also the first word that Jesus preaches when He returns from the desert in the very next chapter of Matthew. What does this word really mean for John the Baptist, or for Jesus? Does the Good News we preach in our generation include repentance or not?

I believe that the concept of repentance is not really understood in the way that Jesus preaches it for many people of our generation. If I stood on the street corner, in tattered clothes, calling out for people to “Repent!” some may refer to me as a modern John the Baptist. Most people would likely uncomfortably cross over to the other side of the street. Such a message could be received by many as a condemning call to sinners to change their lives. While repentance involves a change of direction, it really has to do more with where we are headed, than where we have been. To “turn away” from sin (the Old Testament word for repentance), or to have a “change of heart” (the New Testament word for repentance), requires more than simply turning away from darkness, it necessarily includes a turning toward the light.

John alludes to this fact when he says to the religious leaders, “Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” It is not simply a call to turn away from some evil, but to do good and show the fruit of goodness in our lives. John’s baptism was a baptism of repentance. He gives evidence, though, that the repentance that Jesus would call people to embrace would be even more dynamic and powerful, “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.” Jesus will not only call us from destructive patterns in our lives, but He will call us to life in the Spirit and dynamic fire in our hearts. When Jesus calls to us to repent, He directs us to the Kingdom that is at hand and calls us to be a part of that Kingdom. (Matthew 4:17)

I have known many people who have tried to change their lives. Whether it is giving up bad habits, leaving their job or seeking treatment for addictions, the change only seems to last if there is a new direction, a new goal, or a new community. Many times we focus on what is rejected in the act of repentance without giving enough attention to the blessings and new hope that light the trail of our new path. Why focus on what we are turning from, when we can direct our thoughts and attention to the Kingdom that we are turning toward? The baptism of Jesus is not simply the repentance of John; it is also the fire of the Holy Spirit leading us to a Kingdom of mercy and freedom. If we fix our hearts on the goal of following Jesus, we find it less painful to lose the attachments from which we turn away.

You may have noticed that this is the second week that I have used the word “attachments” to refer to sin or destructive influences in our lives. I borrow this term from my spiritual father, Saint Alphonsus. In his devotional works, he often speaks of the process of “detachment” that discipleship requires. The more that we can learn this detachment, the stronger will be our attachment to Christ. If we grow in simplicity, integrity, devotion and zeal, it will mean that many of the things that we placed so much value on in the past, will become less and less important in the reality of knowing and loving Jesus. It is simply a way to prioritize the different values in our lives, always seeking to have our relationship with Jesus as the top priority. Not all attachments are evil, such as friends, family or recreation; but they can become an obstacle to our discipleship if given a disproportionate importance in relation to our relationship with the Lord.

Our message of repentance today is a message of turning toward the Kingdom. John the Baptist calls us to bear good fruit and to set our focus on goodness. His message will be strengthened and expanded by Jesus, who will call us to focus on the Kingdom by loving God and loving our neighbor. Our repentance is a repentance of redirection. Our repentance is a repentance of focus on relationship with Jesus. Our repentance turns us toward life, freedom and mercy. Leave the attachments behind, and find plentiful redemption in a life directed squarely at Jesus Christ.