Orbiting Dicta

The Second Sunday of Advent

Is 40, 1-5, 9-11
Ps 85
2 Pt 3:8-14
Mk 1:1-8

Several years ago, I noticed that Advent was the first part of the word “adventure.”  Something, I thought, worth pondering.  Last week, I found myself pondering the hazardous adventure of Christmas shopping, which is a very strange kind of event when you stop to think about it.  Physical combat doesn’t seem to be as common among Christmas shoppers today as it was a few years ago, but it still happens. Then there’s the struggle to see who in the neighborhood can get the most lights up on the trees and bushes and eaves and railings.  There’s even a TV reality series about the competition.  Not that it has much to do with the birth of the Messiah.  The main thing still seems to be shopping.
A different kind of adventure is offered us in the readings for this second Sunday of Advent, which center on the power of repentance and forgiveness, the theme linking the three beautiful texts from today’s liturgy of the Word.

In the first reading, we encounter the passage from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, perhaps most familiar to us in the King James version, which was so beautifully set to music by Handel at the beginning of the Messiah.  What we hear these days is still powerful and slightly more accurate:

Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her tribulation is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins [Isaiah 40: 2].

The Hebrew word for “pardon” here is ratsah, which basically means to be pleased with someone, especially because they have satisfied a debt, that they are reconciled, and therefore favored.  It also means “pardon” and “please” as when we beg someone’s forgiveness for an offense or even ask for help, por favor.  Here, it is God who is pardoning, but who had earlier doubled the penalty for Israel’s rejection of the path of justice.  Now all that is past, wiped out, the slate cleaned, the debt paid.

The financial metaphor involved in the preaching of forgiveness carried over into Christian times.  Jesus uses it frequently.  We still echo it when we speak of our debts to God and each other.  Bankers, lawyers, and mortgage companies still use the vocabulary of forgiveness when a loan is written off – except, it seems, for student loan debt, which is arguably the cruelest of all and constantly increasing.  Debt forgiveness may not be the happiest simile, but it is a relevant one.  When we injure one another by our sinfulness, we enter into debt, both to those we have hurt, and to God, who takes on the hurt of the world.

This has become terribly evident in the events of the last couple of weeks.  Early on Saturday, two more hostages were killed for what are increasingly if wrongly identified as religious reasons.  For days across this nation, protests filled the streets of major cities.  We can understand when angry citizens protest manifest inequality and brutality in the execution of the law.  Walter Brueggermann, the great scripture scholar, reminded us years ago that the role of the prophet is public lamentation in the face of injustice.  But when a family finds it possible to speak of forgiveness in the face of the death of their loved ones at the hands of the police or foreign terrorists, I hear an echo of the Lord’s Prayer.  I hear Jesus teaching.

Turning back to God, finding our way again, the great Advent theme and great adventure of our lives, requires a settling of debts.  On God’s part, it is remarkably simple: forgiveness is there to be taken, abundantly, and completely.  The only hitch is the condition that we be as willing to forgive each other, so that God’s forgiveness can take possession of us.  Jesus never tires of repeating that our unwillingness to forgive each other limits the effectiveness of God’s forgiveness in our case.

It’s all too easy to forget the little commentary that follows the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel:

…if you forgive people their transgressions, your heavenly Father also will forgive you; but if you do not forgive others their transgressions, neither will your Father forgive yours [Mat 6:14-15].

The second Letter of Peter seems to pass quickly over the theme of repentance and forgiveness in its enthusiasm for grand eschatological drama, but in fact, it lies at the heart of his message, too.

The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance [2 Peter 3:9].

The word the author uses here is metanoia, one of the most important words the New Testament.  It has nothing to do with punishment, penance, or penalty, like the Latin word paenitere.  It means to change our way of thinking, to reverse a decision, to change direction.  The richly metaphorical language of the Second Epistle of Peter evokes a certain feeling of dread anticipation, one not diminished by the imagery of the approach of a thief, a use so prevalent in New Testament texts that there is no reason to doubt that it came from Jesus himself.  We have no time to waste.  The need for a change of mind and heart is urgent now.

But it is the opening of the Gospel of Mark that returns us most forcefully to the theme of repentance and forgiveness, introducing the main character of the Advent readings, John the Baptizer, who came to prepare Christ’s way in the wilderness.  John, too, preached metanoia.  And of course, Jesus preached the same message, the urgent need for a whole new way of thinking, feeling, and acting grounded in love and expressed in forgiveness and reconciliation, which may be the greatest Christmas present of all.