Advent: Conversion and Expectant Waiting

At today’s Mass readings for the second Sunday of Advent, the Gospel passage describes John the Baptist who is baptizing people as they repent for their sins. John knows that he is only pointing the way to another who is greater than he is, and that person is Jesus, who will come to baptize with the Holy Spirit.

Advent is a season of waiting, a season of preparation, and a season of conversion. The Greek term for conversion is metanoia, and its most literal meaning means to “change around” what we know. It can even mean to “change one’s mind.” I’m a convert to Catholicism and grateful for the gift of faith and the gift of the Church, but conversion is not so much about membership in the “right” community as it is about being willing to be transformed in how we think and how we feel. Conversion is about having a change of heart.

To some extent, we make choices that contribute to the possibility of conversion. Aquinas, for example, describes faith, hope, and love, the three great theological virtues, as “habits” of the soul. They are habits because they are dispositions that we can practice. Love is not just a feeling for one’s spouse, children, or friends, but a way of attending to another’s needs and another’s good where I can practice paying attention to their needs rather than only my own. John the Baptist baptizes those who come to him because they recognize their need for a change, for a change of heart.

But the readings from today also tell us that any conversion of heart is also very much about God’s action in us. We can all think of aspects of ourselves that we would like to change but find difficult to change through our own volition. Maybe it is a tendency to use a snappier voice than we intend to when we are tired at the end of the day.  Or perhaps we feel self-pity about what we lack rather than gratitude for what we have. Or we can feel discouraged about social ills such as racism, poverty, homelessness, and political exile.

The reading from Isaiah assures us that God is not simply waiting for us to turn around but is actively assisting us in our efforts toward conversion. Isaiah tells the people, “Be comforted!”  God will take the hills and valleys, the ups and downs that make our journey tiring and level them to make it easier for us. This past summer, I started running for exercise. After running up a hill, encountering a long, flat stretch of road is a wonderful break. My slow uphill pace speeds up just a little, and I feel more energy and confidence that I can go the distance when the road is flat.

Isaiah reassures us that God is actively seeking to level the hills for us, to make the road a bit easier: “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low” (Isaiah 40:4). Or to take another image, God is like a shepherd, who feeds the flock and carries the little lambs who are too tired to walk any further. When we also are too tired to walk further on our own, or perhaps discouraged by ourselves, others, or by the sinfulness of the larger world around us, we can remember that God’s promise is to pick us up and give us what we need to make those changes. Have hope. “Be comforted.”

Along with hope, we also need patience. The second reading from 2 Peter reminds us that God’s timeline is not our timeline: “Do not ignore this one fact, beloved, that with the Lord one day is like a thousand years and a thousand years like one day” (2 Peter 3:8). Why does God delay? Peter tells us it is because God is patient and does not anyone to be lost. God want to rescue not only those who are already doing good in the world, but those who are in need of repenting, but have not yet repented.God is awaiting us, just as much as we are awaiting Him.

In Advent, we wait. We wait expectantly, with patience, and with hope for the Savior that will come and transform our selves and our very world. “Be comforted!”