In the Gospel reading for the Second Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist proclaims:
“The Kingdom of Heaven is at hand!”
Over the next few days, we will offer some reflections on the Kingdom by Fr Martin Connor to help us to “Prepare the way of the Lord.”
What does Kingdom mean?
When our Lord tells us that his “Kingdom is not of this world,” (John 18:36) do we have any idea of what this means? We are immersed in a culture in which the material is paramount. This culture says, “If I cannot see it, touch it, taste it, or smell it, then it has no meaning for me, no immediate value, and, I dismiss it because it is not important.”
His Kingdom is not “of this world,” because it is not of this material world only. The Kingdom is not a physical place, and yet, God has chosen to allow this Kingdom to reside within the souls of human beings.
“God breathed into his nostrils the breath of life, and the man became a living being” (Genesis 2:7).
Six months after my ordination, my father died. When I went to see the body of my dead father in the morgue, and the sheet was removed, yes, it was his body, but, it was not him. My Father was not there because his spiritual soul was not there. The soul “refers to the innermost aspect of man, that which is of greatest value in him, that by which he is most especially in God’s image; the soul signifies the spiritual principle in man.” It was clear to me in that moment at the morgue that we are not just a material body but truly body and soul.
So the Kingdom is not necessarily about my material world but more about what is inside of me. I cannot see it and touch it. It is born inside my soul. Jesus said this himself:
“the Kingdom of God is within you” (Luke 17:21).
We begin with this consideration then since Jesus said it: The Kingdom of God is within you. Perhaps in more simple terms, we could define the Kingdom as an interior openness to the action of God which beckons me to respond first in selfless love to all human experiences. This inner disposition is literally “born” or initiated in baptism when the seed of divine life through the gifts of faith, hope and charity are sown in my soul by the Holy Spirit.
Jesus uses the image of the action of yeast in dough to explain in the Gospel according to Matthew, chapter 13.
Anyone who likes to bake knows that yeast has the ability to permeate an entire mass of dough causing it to grow, multiply and change its very shape. The yeast is that divine seed sown in baptism. It is infused divine life in me, which changes me, and transforms my spirit.
Now, this change in me does not happen immediately. After baptism, we are disposed by grace (God’s power in us) to love in this way because God’s divine spirit now dwells with us. Jesus promised us this: “We will come to you and make our abode in you” (John 14:23).
The yeast that transforms the dough reflects the action of grace, an action that is not visible through human eyes and that works invisibly, through prayer, the reception of the sacraments, small deeds and events. Yeast transforms dough for bread in the same way that the spiritual life transforms a man. The yeast of the spirit transforms man and converts him into a citizen of the Kingdom of Heaven.
So, the Kingdom truly does begin within each of us. A baptized Catholic who accepts the grace of God with an open spirit transforms his life. When my interior way of being becomes more Christ-like, more divine-like, with the help of this new power called grace, then I will not wait to be loved by others, but I will respond first in love like Christ did.
This is what God did, He loved us first (cf. 1 John 4, 20), and now it’s our turn with His help. This fact alone — living from the very Spirit of God himself — of carrying Christ inside — should move us to be unafraid in our loving, ready to love even the unlovable. With all this said, let us have one thing very clear in our minds. This change in us is the pure gift of God.
In a world so immersed in individualism and personal autonomy with the evident loss of awareness that we are wholly dependent on another for salvation, that Other who is Almighty God, how easy it is to gradually transfer our confidence to things or to self!
In his letters to the first Christians, St. Paul is insistent in his warning of this danger and to one such a community he says: “For who sees anything different in you? What have you that you did not receive? If then you received it, why do you boast as if it were not a gift?” (1 Cor 4:7) For the sake of the world and for our own sake, as individuals and as Church– not to mention members of a new spiritual family in the Church — we desperately need not to behave as if what we have in the way of spiritual and material goods is due to our own merit or a result of our own will or strength. There should be a resounding, “No!” in us to this way of thinking. It is the pure grace of God.
All of what we have and who we are is the pure grace of God and is meant to be given back to Him in our acts of love, big and small.
[Fr Martin Connor is a priest of the Legionaries of Christ in Atlanta, Georgia. Since his ordination in 2001, he has dedicated his priesthood to the spiritual formation of Catholic men. The reflections on the Kingdom that we will be sharing this week are from a book he plans to publish, 10 Reflections on the Kingdom, which will be available as an ebook in early 2014, pending publication.]