Dear Brothers and Sisters in Christ,
As we enter the third week of Advent, we are reminded to rejoice, for the Lord’s arrival in time and history is very near. His forerunner, John the Baptist, gives a powerful prescription for finding joy. The people come to him as he baptizes at the Jordan and ask what they ought to do. Having heard his call to repentance and received baptism, they want to know how they can continue their conversion and stay strong in their resolve. John gives a twofold answer. First, he tells them to share what they have, to live generously. Second, he reminds them of the truth that a mighty savior is coming.
To John the Baptist’s first piece of advice, we can all nod in agreement. However, it’s not always so easy to follow that advice. Giving of ourselves and our resources can be a genuine challenge. We tend to plan, to budget, to set things aside just-in-case. We tend also to look for more. But John the Baptist tells us to share, to be satisfied with what we have. Freedom from sin requires a heart that is focused on God. Later in the Gospel, we will see the generosity John calls for lived out by an unlikely figure. As Jesus goes through the city of Jericho, he finds a tax collector named Zacchaeus. Through this encounter, Zacchaeus leaves behind a sinful life and repays all that he has taken from people. Furthermore, he gives half of everything he owns to the poor. And he does it with joy! The Lord’s response? “Today, salvation has come to this house” (Luke 19:9). Zacchaeus was isolated by his sin – extortion, greed, theft – and is desperate for freedom and the joy he lacks due to his isolating sinfulness. When he meets Jesus and says yes to the invitation to conversion, he finds true joy.
In our literary tradition, we see a similar conversion take place in Ebenezer Scrooge. Dickens’ famous miser is never satisfied with what he has and absolutely refuses to give anything of his vast fortune. Like Zacchaeus, Scrooge is isolated. When he finally makes the decision to change, he discovers that his generosity breaks down the barriers of isolation that he has built. He finds that giving away what he has results in a payment of joy he could never have imagined. Look at <em>how</em> Scrooge goes about this. He meets the men who had, the day before, asked him for a donation. He apologizes for his earlier rudeness, asking for their forgiveness. Then, he whispers his intention to make a donation. First, he repents. Second, he atones, making an offering almost as a penance.
John the Baptist’s preaching always points toward the coming of Christ, the one who is mightier, the great savior of the nations. Zacchaeus encountered Jesus directly and put John’s preaching into action. Scrooge follows a path that each of us can take. Though very few of us would ever be placed in the same category as Ebenezer Scrooge, we can, if we are honest, see some of his flaws in ourselves. The season of Advent calls us to repent, to atone for our sin. As Christmas approaches, we are reminded again and again of the joy of giving. With Scrooge and Zacchaeus, then, let us turn away from our sin and make restitution. And remember how Scrooge wraps up his Christmas day. After making his donation, he goes to church. He prays for the first time in many years. Having asked pardon he is able to come before the Lord with freedom and without stumbling block. From church, he goes to his nephew’s home and shares in the family celebration. His conversion has broken down the isolation he experienced from his fellow men, from his family, and from his God. So our generosity breaks down the barriers that exist in our world, in our community, in our homes, and allows us to welcome the one whose sandals we are not worthy to unfasten. Jesus, though He is so highly exalted, has humbled Himself. He desires to be among us and for us to experience the joy of His presence. So let us live generously and prepare well for the Mighty One, the Prince of Peace, the King of Kings, whose coming we await with joy.