Communion and Conversion: Recollection Material for March 2019 (John 3:25-30)

To be able to build up communion, we need to unite ourselves with the WE of God. This implies that we cede the main role to God. St. Augustine indicates that the text of today invites us to be humble, to acknowledge that Christian life and community life is always an act of ceding the space and the main role to God.

I prepare my heart.

          I become conscious that I am alive and that life is a beautiful gift that God has given me. Similarly, I become conscious that I am here and now disposed to live a day of encounter with God. To tune in with God, I invoke the help and illumination of the Holy Spirit. He is the giver of life and the fount of all light and fire of the heart:

Come, Holy Spirit, by whom every devout soul, who believes in Christ, is sanctified to become a citizen of the City of God! (en. Ps. 45:8) Come, Holy Spirit, grant that we receive the motions of God, put in us your flame, enlighten us and raise us up to God )s. 128, 4).

I open my heart.

          I thank God for his presence and generosity of leading me to listen to his Word and of disposing my heart for an affective dialogue with him. Together with my brothers here present, I recite this prayer to the interior Master:

Lord, we thank you because once more you gather us together in your presence. Lord, you put us face to face with your Word; help us to approach it with reverence, with attention, with humility. Send us your Spirit that we may receive it in truth, with simplicity, that it may transform our life. Let your Word transverse us like a two-edged sword. Let our hearts be open, as was Mary’s, your Mother and our Mother. And as in her, the Word became flesh, so also in us let this Word of yours become works of life according to your will. Amen.

          With a heart well disposed and with serenity, I read slowly the following words, savoring them and allowing myself to be touched by them:

          Now a discussion arose between John’s disciples and a Jew over purifying. And they came to John, and said to him, “Rabbi, he who was with you beyond the Jordan, to whom you bore witness, here he is, baptizing, and all are going to him.” John answered, “No one can receive anything except what is given him from heaven. You yourselves bear witness that I said, I am not the Christ, but I have been sent before him. He who has the bride is the bridegroom; the friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice; therefore this joy of mine is now full. He must increase, but I must decrease.”

I return to the heart.

Biblical keys:

Two places, two baptisms. The Gospel of John presents to us both the Baptist and Jesus acting simultaneously for a time to emphasize the difference between the two. Of course, there is not only the difference of geographical location (Jesus was baptizing in Judea at the lower Jordan, while the Baptist was doing it towards Salim, in the North), but above all the force to gather people, since the young prophet from Nazareth was attracting a multitude. John the Baptist makes it clear once more that all this comes from heaven.

          The Bridegroom and the Bride. Jesus is sent by God, John reiterates to his disciples and to the multitude who had come to him. That his mission may be understood, the Baptist uses the image of a wedding: he came to prepare the wedding, to call the attention of the Bride, i.e., the people of Israel, to give welcome to the Bridegroom who is coming and thus live the nuptial feast. Therefore, they must go, not towards him (the Baptist), but towards the Bridegroom, Jesus of Nazareth.

This testimony of the Baptist reminds us of the task of every preacher: to prepare the heart of the hearer to welcome the Lord. But it is also the task of every believer, the task of every member of the community: to help the other members of the community to receive Jesus into their heart. This is the meaning of the sparkling affirmation of John: “He must increase and I must decrease.” How many times have we been captive of our desire to be lead actors, the desire to appear in lime light. Each one needs to die to his own pride in order that the love of Jesus may grow in us and in others.

          Two levels of narrative. The narrative seems to develop in two levels. On the one hand is the discussion between the disciples of John and a Jew on purification. Some scholars think that the text has been altered and they agree that the discussion is only among the disciples of John who were preoccupied that many seek the baptism of Jesus. “He is baptizing and all go after him.” On the other hand, is the intervention of John the Baptist to affirm that “I am not the Christ, rather I had been sent before him” (28). In continuation is the metaphor to designate his situation and that of Jesus which is developed around three characters: the Bridegroom (Jesus), the Bride (the messianic community), and the friend of the Bridegroom who assists him (John the Baptist), like a reference to the Old Testament where the relationship between God and his people is described in the figures of God as husband and Israel as wife.

          He must increase. Let us take note of the contrast between the initial narrative, referring to the disciples of John and the Jew (disciples of Jesus) and the jealousy for the adherents to the baptism of Jesus, resulting in the loss of followers, and the reaction of John who acknowledges and emphasizes his identity: “I am not the Christ but that I have been sent before him” (v.28), and the final statement which is the zenith of the whole passage: “he must increase and I must decrease.”

          The final statement of John the Baptist become an example to leave behind anger, jealousy and envy, and give way to joy for seeing the arrival of the Messiah. In the Augustinian spirituality humility and conversion are important virtues for they bring one to recognize the values and the capabilities of a brother in the community.

Augustinian keys.

          For St. Augustine the model of communion within the community is the Blessed Trinity, that lives in the perfect communion of persons, and in them is the fullness of unity in diversity, and as St. Augustine puts it: there exists a unity in plurality (trin. 6, 3,4).

          To be able to construct communion one must learn to renounce the self and one’s own egoism to form the one reality of community.

          Conversion: to die in order to give life.The life of communion in the Augustinian community demands that its members live a process of continuous conversion, which in turn becomes a prolonged participation in the paschal mystery of Christ. It is therefore necessary to continually review and revise one’s own life, to die to ourselves, to our desires, to our own old man (Eph. 4:22),  and be able to give life to the project of God which is no other than the communion within the community. Conversion thus becomes not only an act of a moment but a process. St. Augustine discovers that a human being has to continually revise his own life, because sin never ceases to surround him and at times sin may enter the life of a believer without his knowing it. For this reason, we can never say that we are fully converted, rather we need to ask forgiveness everyday with the whole Church for our sins and errors, and acknowledge that we need the grace and the interior renewal from God.

          Because, who can comply with the Law up to the last punctuation mark but he who complies with all the commandments of God? But among the commandments themselves there is also that which we are obliged to say: ‘Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us,’ a prayer which the whole Church says until the end of time (retr. 19,3).

          Conversion, a gift from God. On the other hand, St. Augustine reminds us that conversion is a gift from God. St. Augustine himself in old age, when he looks back and rereads his own life in the light of God, discovers that his conversion was not a personal and spontaneous movement, but was a gift from God, it was something that God granted, thanks to the prayers of the Church, represented by his mother.

(Upon reading the Confessions) “where I narrate my conversion, a work of God, to this faith that I fought with miserable and furious loquacity, do you not recall that in narrating it, I showed very clearly that what averted my condemnation were the ardent supplications and the faithful and daily tears of my good mother? With that I proclaimed and exposed to the face of the world that God, by his gratuitous grace, not only converts the wills of men separated from sound faith but also the wills contrary and rebellious to it” (perseu. 53).

          Because of this, to live and to daily build up communion in the community implies praying for the brothers. As St. Augustine indicates in the commentary on Psalm 132, it is better, it is more holy, it is more humanly and spiritually sane to produce the fruit that God desires, put away murmuring that does nothing else than destroy the communion of brothers, and pray for them, so that together we can walk together the path of charity and we can build the communitarian communion every day, because if love fails, even though we live in one same house, we assume negative attitudes:

Because those in whom the charity of Christ does not exist, even though they live under one roof, they hate, they molest, they torment, they disturb with their bad humor towards the others, they search what they are to say about them (….) But, if one possesses the dew of Hermon [the grace of God] he is meek, relaxed, humble, tolerant and prays instead of murmuring (en. Ps. 132, 12).

          A communion in diversity. Conversion is necessary within the community to accept the diversity and to learn to be open to the needs of others. A community that seriously takes the process of building up the communion recognizes the need for self-conversion every day, to break one’s egoism and self-centeredness, to be open to diversity, to be capable to overcome human routine and daily fatigue, and to live with dynamism the hopeful and creative vigor of the love of God. In the community unity is sought, not uniformity, thus St. Augustine, commenting on Psalm 44 says that the dress of the queen, figure of the Church, is a precious and varied gown, but this variety is expressed in the diversity of tongues that does not break the unity. The same must happen in our communities:

What is the dress of this queen? It is precious and varied: the mysteries of the doctrine is expressed in all the languages. Some in African language, others in Syrian, others in Greek, others in Hebrew (…) And just as the variety in dress is harmonized in the unity, (…) let there be variety in the dress, but let there be no rupture (en. Ps. 44, 24).

          The community, temple of God. For St. Augustine the community becomes not only a practical place where the needs of the religious are met, but is above all the temple of God. He indicates this in the first chapter of the Rule, where he reminds us with St. Paul, that not only is the individual religious temple of God (2 Cor. 6:16), but that the community itself is the temple of God:

Therefore, let everyone live in oneness of soul and heart, and honor God in one another, by whom you have been made temples (reg. 3 1, 8).  

Thus the community is holy ground where the essential thing is: let Christ grow, that the religious learn to die to oneself, in order to build up communion in Christ. If some member of the community insists in building up space for his own ego and so destroys the communion, and as such impedes that Christ grow in the midst of the community, he attempts not only against a group of persons, but rather, according to Augustine’s thinking, he attempts against the temple of God and the house of God, an element of particular gravity.

          In all this it is necessary to be humble and ask God for the grace of conversion, so that Christ may increase and we may decrease, in our personal spiritual life as well as in the life of the community.

Questions for Community dialogue.

To build up communion in the community, there is need for conversion. What does it mean for me to be converted to build up communion?

Communion and conversion are gifts of God. How important in my life is praying daily for the community?

Love makes the community grow and builds up communion. How do I live daily the precept of love in my community (patience, service, availability, understanding…)?

The community is the temple of God. How do I daily build up this temple, so that Christ may live in the midst of the community?

I lift up my heart.

          Let us thank God for the gifts, the strength and the light he has granted us on this day of recollection. For this the following words of St. Augustine can help us:

Ever since I turned to you, I was renewed by you, you created me; I was renewed because I was created; I was reformed because I was formed. From the moment of my conversion, I learnt that no merits of my own preceded, rather that you gratuitously gave me your grace, that I may remember only your justice (en. Ps. 70:2, 2).

          “Like the dew of Hermon that descends on Mount Zion.” By this the Psalmist wanted us to understand, my brothers, that because of God’s grace the brothers live as one; it is not because of their strength nor their merits, but by the grace of God, which is like the dew from heaven (en. Ps. 132, 10).

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Fray Hubert Dunstan Decena, OAR

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