During this time of year, in preparation for Christmas we Catholics read in Mass the Gospels referring to John the Baptist, who preached two major themes: repentance from evil, and producing good fruits of a good life—works of charity. Most Christians believe that without repentance, our good works have little spiritual effect … for doing evil is acting against (rejecting) the Good—i.e., the will of God—and consequently in some degree separates us from God—from Christ—who teaches us: “He who abides in me, and I in him, he it is that bears much fruit, for apart from me you can do nothing. If a man does not abide in me, he is cast forth as a branch and withers….” (John 15:5-6) As an analogy, think of the adulterer telling his wife: “Yes, honey, I cheated … but have some flowers and chocolates; everything is good now, right?” Yeah … good luck with that; I’ll come to your funeral.
Jesus Himself emphasizes repentance throughout His mission … urging us to seek to be perfect as Our Heavenly Father is perfect. (cf. Mt 5:48) A tall and unattainable order, yes, but one we should ever strive toward … just as a young athlete knows he may never attain the level of Michael Jordan, but always has that goal for motivation.
After all, repentance and producing good fruits of charity are really two sides of the same coin, really … for the law of God is based entirely on love. When we think “repentance”, we tend to think “Commandments” … and thus hearken to the two great commandments summing up all law and prophets: Love the Lord your God with your whole being … love your neighbor as yourself. In Exodus (31:18), the Ten Commandments were written by God on two tablets of stone, emphasizing that they are simply an amplification of those two great commandments of charity.
The first three commandments speak of our duty to God as our Creator and Father…giving God His due, so to speak, of worship, fidelity, reverence and service.
The fourth commandment (“Honor thy father and mother”) is a bridge of sorts … emphasizing our duty towards those who are our greatest benefactors in this world and those from whom we receive life: “Remember that through your parents you were born; and what can you give back to them that equals their gift to you?” (Sirach 7:28)
The following six commandments refer to duties to ourselves and to our fellow man—5: protection of life; 6: protection of purity; 7: of property; 8: of honor; 9 & 10: of domestic life.
These are the things that give peace, both external and internal. As the psalm says: “Great peace have those who love thy law; nothing can make them stumble…by thy commandments I have had understanding.” (Psalm 119:165, 104)
And, of course, when the young man asks Jesus in the Gospels: “What must I do to attain eternal life?” Jesus tells Him first and foremost to keep the Commandments. And not just some of them, but all … for as St. James tell us: “…whoever keeps the whole law but fails in one point has become guilty of all of it.” (James 2:10)
Why is that? Because the Commandments form a unified whole … so closely bound to one another that one cannot be maintained without the others. Violation of one transgresses the underlying foundation of charity, upon which all the commandments depend (cf. St. Augustine). As with a violin, one broken string ruins the entire melody … or, as with an army, one careless soldier can lead to the ruin of all.
And keeping the commandments—doing the Good—as St. John says, is not burdensome (1 John 5:3) … reminding of Jesus: “Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me…and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light.” (Matthew 11:29-30) … just as the book of Sirach assures us: “If you will, you can keep the commandments, and to act faithfully is a matter of your own choice.” (Sirach 15:15) The Commandments simply require refraining from wrong, which keeps our conscience at peace and our soul at rest.
So, then … how bear good fruit? Through works of mercy, of course.
The bodily (corporal) wants of our neighbor are food, drink, clothing, shelter, liberty, health and life … and thus the seven corporal works of mercy are to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, give drink to the thirsty, shelter the homeless, visit the sick and those in prison, and to bury the dead.
Now, the seven spiritual—and thus even greater—works of mercy are counseling the doubtful, instructing the ignorant (those untaught of God), admonishing the sinner, comforting the sorrowful and afflicted, forgiving injury, bearing wrongs patiently, and praying for the living and the dead (for the latter, see 2 Maccabees 12). In these we cooperate with God for the salvation of souls, and thus these are the highest and most merciful of all works done for our neighbor. Religion teachers ought remember that, for in teaching the young or those who do not yet know God, they walk hand-in-hand with Our Lord leading others to the Father.
Jesus tells us unequivocally that it is not the possession, but rather good use, of earthly goods which make us truly rich … and it is in one’s moral qualities—virtue, not wealth—that one’s real dignity and greatness consist: “…whoever would be great among you must be your servant… even as the Son of man came not to be served but to serve…” (Matthew 20:26-28) What better life is there than to emulate Jesus in this? After all, the tomb teaches us the worthlessness of earth’s wealth, for we take nothing with us at death except the record of what we have done in life—both the good and the bad—and no one can be called happy until the outcome of his own judgment before God. “Where your treasure is, there your heart will be also.” (Matthew 6:21)
And so … following the commandments of charity—both in obedience to God’s moral law and in active giving of self to others—IS the repentance and good fruit of which Jesus, John the Baptist and all the saints exhort us toward. So, as we continue our Advent pre-Christmas season, let the realization of these truths take root deeply and act with no delay, for as Paul writes: “Behold, NOW is the acceptable time; behold, NOW is the day of salvation.” (2 Corinthians 6:2) And then this Advent season becomes even more joyful … more hope-filled … knowing that, as we watch for Our Savior and Lord, we can greet Him with clean heart … clean conscience … bearing gifts of charity and obedience to our newborn King in a new Epiphany … being a beloved child of the Father … and a useful servant of God.
Rev. Glenn Jones is the Vicar General of the Archdiocese of Santa Fe and former pastor of Immaculate Heart of Mary Catholic Church in Los Alamos.