St. John the Baptist and the call to conversion during Advent

Detail, stained glass window depicting St. John the Baptist in the Cathedral of St. Bavo in Ghent, Belgium. Photo: jorisvo/Shutterstock

Advent is about watching and preparing. The Mass readings for the First Sunday of Advent reveal this fact to us. Of course, we are watching and preparing for the birth of our Savior, Jesus Christ, at Christmas, but the readings remind us that we are also supposed to be watching and preparing for his second coming. We are taught that we do so by our attempts to “go up to the Lord’s mountain,” to learn his ways, and to “walk in his paths” (Isaiah 2:3).

This last quote from one of the great prophets reveals to us that Advent is about something else, too. It is about conversion. Conversion, our Catholic faith teaches us, is a “radical reorientation of the whole life” (Glossary, Catechism of the Catholic Church). This reality is at the heart of this blessed season, and it is meant to lead us to the joyful celebration of the Nativity of Jesus.

Each of us knows that if we are to climb that proverbial mountain and follow God’s ways, then we must convert from our sinfulness; we must become more of who God intends us to be. We must allow our lives to be radically reoriented by God’s grace. Each Advent is an opportunity to journey further on that path of conversion. And, if we allow God’s grace to guide us in ongoing conversion, we will experience Advent more fully and deeply.

Each Advent is an opportunity to journey further on that path of conversion.

The theme of conversion shows itself repeatedly throughout the season, especially in one of the central figures of Advent. We encounter St. John the Baptist in the Gospel readings for the Second and Third Sundays of Advent, and in him the message of conversion comes to the forefront. John is presented to us as the one who prepares the way for the Lord, and he is the one who calls us to “repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand” (Matthew 3:2).

Repentance is the first and primary message that John the Baptist brings. Repentance is a major act of conversion, and it is the only way to prepare for the arrival of the Messiah. In the Greek text, the word that the Baptist speaks is metanoeite, which literally means “change your mind.” Thus, we can see that Advent is supposed to be a season of changing our minds so that our hearts will change also. We will only climb the Lord’s mountain and learn to walk in his ways by changing our minds first, then our habits.

What we can do during Advent

So, how can we change our minds during this holy season? Let’s look in deeper detail at St. John the Baptist. There are some simple and profound lessons to be learned from his life and ministry.

The first important thing to know about John the Baptist is that he was a prophet of the Lord. In fact, we know from Jesus’ own words (see Matthew 11:11) that John was the greatest in a long line of prophets, all of whom engaged in the effort to call God’s chosen people to conversion.

“The Sermon of St. John the Baptist” by Pieter Bruegel the Elder, 1566. Photo: Public Domain

John’s mission, in the spirit of Elijah, was to “turn … the heart of sons to their fathers” (Malachi 3:24). That’s what prophets do. In our own era of Christian history, and during this Advent, we also need to listen to the voices of modern prophets in our culture. We need to heed those whose words and actions help to turn our hearts and our culture back to the heavenly Father.

John went out into the wilderness in order to prepare himself and others for the arrival of the Messiah. I am not suggesting that we all take trips to the desert or the national forests during Advent. I am, however, suggesting that we might bring the desert to us by blocking out some of the noise that we might experience during this season. We must find time, each and every day this season, to be alone in preparation, or at least with others who seek the same thing.

We read in the Gospel passage that John the Baptist had an austere wardrobe and diet. Sure, we probably will not resort to eating locusts, but we should take the opportunity to sacrifice something during Advent, something that is a comfort for us. Maybe it’s some type of food or alcohol, or some amount of television or shopping. In any case, these sacrifices would be a bit like us going into a desert, even for a short period of time.

We should take the opportunity to sacrifice something during Advent.

John tells those who come out to hear him to “produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance” (Matthew 3:8). Every conversion naturally impels us to good works, to making an effort to bring about good things in our world. Specifically, these are the works of mercy.

Advent certainly is a great time to exercise some of the works of mercy, which bring good fruit into our world. The thing we must always keep in mind is that we do these, not because they make us feel good or even because another person “needs” those things, but because we love Jesus Christ and he has given us a command to love our neighbors. We only love our neighbors through the works of mercy.

Repentance and conversion are the foundation on which these other Advent practices stand. We only undertake austerity, sacrifices, and good works because we have felt and answered the call to turn toward the Lord.

During these holy weeks of Advent, we all should aim toward our own conversion of mind and heart, and that will allow us to climb the mountain of the Lord, and to help others climb, as well. In that way, we’ll all become prophets, like St. John the Baptist, and we’ll receive Jesus at Christmas more fully and joyfully.

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