Fyodor Dostoevsky, a Russian author of great renown, came from a family of wealth and privilege. He describes a turning point in his life when he was 27 years old. He had been working on behalf of the working class seeking their liberation from the horrid conditions of 19th century Russia.
In April 1849, as a result of his activities, he was arrested as a subversive. He was placed in a maximum security prison where life was hard. For eight months, he and his fellow prisoners were interrogated by the police and security forces. In October, he and the other prisoners were led from their cells to carriages. They were not told where they were going or what would happen to them but they were convinced their sentence would be light.
They were led to a square lined with stakes. The men were sentenced to be shot. They were dressed in peasant’s clothes and given a cross to kiss and the opportunity to confess to a priest. Soldiers led the first three prisoners to the stakes and tied them up. They then went to their positions and took aim.
Then, all of a sudden, a trumpet blast was heard as a messenger from the Tsar came riding up on a horse. He came with a reprieve. The prisoners, including Dostoevsky, were not to be shot but sent to Siberia instead.
Dostoevsky, writing later to his brother, described his new outlook on life following this experience: “When I look back on my past and think how much time I wasted on nothing, how much time has been lost in futilities, errors, laziness, incapacity to live; how little I appreciated it, how many times I sinned against my heart and soul — then my heart bleeds. Life is a gift, life is happiness, every minute can be an eternity of happiness.”
In the novel, “The Idiot,” Dostoevsky describes an execution scene similar to the one he experienced himself. As the character approached his impending death he thinks: “What if I didn’t have to die!… I would turn every minute into an age, nothing would be wasted, every minute would be accounted for….”
After his experience, Dostoevsky had a new appreciation for life and its value. He had a “change of heart,” not regarding his concern for the poor but the way in which he was living his life.
Observing the season of Advent gives us the opportunity to look at our lives and how we are living the life that has been given us from God.
“Repent!” the Baptist cries, “for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!” John comes to prepare the way of the Lord with a call to repentance. The Greek word for “repent” is metanoia which literally means “change one’s heart.” His call to conversion of heart lies at the heart of the preparation for the coming Messiah. The call for conversion is once again addressed to us as we prepare for the Lord’s return as well as our renewed celebration of his birth at Christmas.
Jesus is the long-awaited Messiah who liberates us from all that holds us bound. He is the one who baptizes with “the Holy Spirit and fire.” He is the one upon whom the spirit of the Lord rests: “a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and of fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.”
Jesus invites us to life through conversion of heart. He himself will later echo the Baptist’s call for repentance. The conversion called for lies deep within us, at the core of our being. Jesus tells us that this conversion leads to life, a life that no force in this world will be able to take from us. The new life in Christ leads us to see life differently, to see it as God sees it and to be transformed in the process.
The new life in Christ is prophesied by Isaiah. He speaks of the transformation that takes place with the advent of the “shoot” rising from the “stump of Jesse,” saying: “Justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt upon his hips: Then the world shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them. The cow and the bear shall be neighbors, together their young shall rest; the lion shall eat hay like the ox. The baby shall play in the cobra’s den, and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair. There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain; for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the Lord as water covers the sea.”
The event is so significant that the natural order of the world is turned transformed. Enemies and adversaries become friends and companions. Peace is established and enmity is destroyed.
Advent provides us the time for renewal. Preparing for the Lord entails metanoia, repentance. As we hear the Baptist’s words once again we have the opportunity to look at our lives and the way in which we live; to value life as a gift of tremendous price; and to live our lives in a perpetual thanksgiving of praise.
“Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand.”