“Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.”
Why is it that repentance itself is not enough, but that St. John the Baptist insists to the pharisees at the Jordan River, and by extension the pharisees in this church, that they need to produce the good fruit of repentance?
Surely we have all had the experience of someone committing a fault and then apologizing to us. That’s not the issue. What’s perplexing is when such an occurrence happens again and again for years on end regarding the same fault, so that every time the other person apologizes, on the one hand you want to call him out, but on the other hand you know you’re supposed to forgive, as Jesus says, seventy-seven times.
Yes, that is true, we have to forgive that much, but if every time he apologizes our offender has no stronger resolution to avoid that fault in the future, then in fact his apology is meaningless. In the sacrament of Confession, priests are supposed to absolve penitents who manifest sufficient sorrow for their sins, which most people do simply by showing up, confessing their sins, and making an act of contrition. But if someone repeatedly falls back into the same mortal sins, the confessor then requires of the penitent some greater assurance of a stronger resolve, to make that apology to God more credible.
So, producing good fruit of repentance does two things: It strengthens the will of the penitent by putting that contrition into action, and it reassures those around us that we mean what we say.
How, then, do we acquire such a strong hatred for sin that producing good fruits of repentance becomes almost natural? The Baptist mentions the first, most effective way of starting off, not once but twice in our gospel passage. “Every tree that does not bear good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” “The chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
Hell is somewhat of a taboo subject nowadays. People prefer to ignore it, or question its existence. Some people are willing to concede it’s real but claim we don’t know if anyone is really there. However, it says in the letter of St. Jude, “Sodom, Gomorrah, and the surrounding towns, which, in the same manner as they, indulged in sexual promiscuity and practiced unnatural vice, serve as an example by undergoing a punishment of eternal fire.” So, the Bible clearly indicates both that hell is an inhabited place and that those there suffer unquenchable fire.
What is this fire? Even if we don’t exactly know, it’s only logical to assume that it has the same effect of agony and panic that normal fire does. But more profoundly than a sense experience, those in hell feel the effects of their irrevocable choice, the effects of hellfire on their souls: a natural longing for happiness forever thwarted, by their own fault; an innate desire for God coupled with an acquired hatred for him; terrifying loneliness; crushing despair; constant fear of demons; and so on.
Not surprisingly, meditating on this reality helps inspire people to turn away from those actions that will land them in that dreaded place. In fact, the fathers of the Church say that we never progress so far in the spiritual life that occasional meditation on hell is without some profit. And since pondering such a subject quickly makes our intention not to go there very strong, the natural result is the good fruit of repentance St. John the Baptist would have us produce.
What, then, are the good fruits of repentance? Three were mentioned in our gospel account, exemplified by the Baptist himself. First, bodily penance. “John wore clothing made of camel’s hair and had a leather belt around his waist. His food was locusts and wild honey.” It used to be a rather normal practice for Catholics to wear a hair shirt, a scratchy cloth made of camel’s hair or burlap or some similar material. This was to be worn close to the flesh so as to chafe and thus mortify the desires of the flesh. St. Thomas More, a layman, wore a hair shirt that is now enshrined at Buckfast Abbey in southwest England. Moreover, fasting and eating simple foods also help gain control over our bodily desires so as to open our hearts to love God more completely.
Our gospel passage also said, “In those days John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea.” Now, a desert is a place of solitude, being removed from population centers. This affords us the luxury of reflection and especially prayer. St. John’s father was a priest who was serving in the temple in Jerusalem when he found out he would have a son who was to be the precursor of the Christ. So, it’s perfectly reasonable to assume that Zechariah taught John the glories of liturgical worship, as well as making him memorize the psalms used in such worship. Perhaps we don’t have the luxury to drive out to the desert for months and years on end, but we can all retreat into the solitude of our homes and our rooms, so as to enter the interior solitude of our hearts, there to be alone with God in private conversation.
Third, the Gospel today said, “At that time Jerusalem, all Judea, and the whole region around the Jordan were going out to [John] and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.” This baptism was not the same as the one we now have as Christians. Rather, it was more akin in its effect to our penitential rite at the beginning of Mass. But it was a ritual in which one man brought others to repentance as they confessed their sins. And this should immediately bring to mind our sacrament of Confession. Nothing so fertilizes our hearts to produce the good fruit of repentance as does Confession. Here we humble ourselves by admitting to another our misdeeds, no matter how shameful. Here we avow our detestation of sins and begin the process of atoning for them. Here we determine how, and resolve, to avoid these sins in the future.
Yes, perhaps nothing is so encouraging of the good fruits of repentance as being at our most vulnerable and receiving mercy—“I absolve you from your sins…”—for at this moment the soul is filled with hope. The conviction that God’s love never wavers inspires fresh resolve to do better in the future, to try once more. Fear of hell may be a good beginning, but it’s never sufficient unto itself. More, much more than avoiding evil, we need to stretch forth to do good, to grow in virtue, to become closer to Christ whom we love above all things.