On this second Sunday of Advent, the Word of God turns our attention to the power of repentance and forgiveness, the great themes of the season. Buying and selling stuff doesn’t get a nod.
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 memorably set to music by Handel at the beginning of the Messiah. What we hear these days is still powerful and definitely as relevant. Or more so.
“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].” Jerusalem could use a few tender words today, from the looks of things. How strange that it has been the center of controversy from the days of King David, when he decided to conquer it and make it his capitol. In Jesus’ lifetime, it was conquered by the Romans, having been held at various times by Assyrians, Babylonians, and the forces of Alexander the Great. The Romans took it again by siege in the year 70 after a revolt, burning the temple to the ground. Again in 135, it was captured and this time, the Jews were expelled and the city renamed. It stayed that way till Constantine restored the ancient name and Jews began to return.
During the Islamic conquest and Crusades, Jerusalem passed back and forth between Persians, Muslims, and Christians, winding up as Muslim city then after World War II under British control until 1947 when partition began, placing it officially under UN jurisdiction. Eventually, Israeli forces took full control of Jerusalem during the Six-day War in 1967. It has been a center of sometimes violent religious and political controversy ever since, and the situation looks like it might get worse. Yes, Jerusalem needs some comfort.
Isaiah tells us that “her iniquity is pardoned.” 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. 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 still relevant. 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 again in the first two weeks of Advent. School shootings, terrorist incidents, and assaults on citizens by carjackers and other thugs seem to be the daily bread of the news outlets. 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 preaching.
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 is clear that our unwillingness to forgive each other limits the effectiveness of God’s forgiveness in our case. Right after the Lord’s Prayer in Matthew’s gospel, we hear:
“…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 symbolism, but in fact, it lies at the heart of his message, too, where we read, “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 we translate “repentance” here is metanoia, one of the most important words the New Testament. It has nothing to do with punishment, penance, or penalty. 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 sneaky 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, a change of heart that leads to forgiveness of sins. Jesus preached the same message, the urgent need for a whole new way of thinking, feeling, and acting grounded in love and expressed in mutual forgiveness and reconciliation. And for individuals and nations, that can be the greatest Christmas present of all.
I still love this season – the Advent wreath with its candles and the fragrance of fresh evergreen branches, the hymns, the
readings, the violet hues, the expectant anticipation – the whole marvelous thing. This year, however, Advent not only arrived sooner but got shorter. That’s not fake news, but a quirk of the calendar. Yet in some respects, Advent seems to have disappeared entirely. In keeping with the new normal, Christmas decorations dutifully took over big-box store shelves right after Halloween. Santa Claus has already appeared in dozens of Thanksgiving Day Parades, and even at our university, the stable scene was set up last week with Mary and Joseph, the donkey, shepherds, wise men, and the baby Jesus already in the manger. A life-size nativity scene was also erected downtown in Daley Plaza for the 33rd time, practically adjacent to the big illuminated A (for Atheism) placed by the Freedom From Religion Foundation. The university Christmas party is scheduled for Tuesday, right before the Lessons and Carols – the Episcopalian ceremony invented years back as an alternative to Midnight Mass, a very Catholic thing. (It’s now called the Vigil Mass and is celebrated around 7 PM…) What’s left to anticipate?
We’re just not very good at waiting any more. We want it all and we want it now. There’s hardly any surprise left, even when it comes to presents. Today children hand a list of expected toys to their parents, moving Santa Claus completely out of the picture. Kids now accompany their parents to big-box stores to pick out what they want or just order them on line. It seems like Advent, that beautiful, quiet, subdued period of joyful anticipation has been swallowed up at both ends by commercialism and the entertainment industry.
So here we are again, increasingly out of the swirl of things, in the wake of Black Friday-Saturday-and-Sunday, Cyber Monday, Travel Deal Tuesday, Cyber Wednesday (with special deals on shooting and gun-cleaning supplies from Battenfield), Gray Thursday, Polka Dot Saturday… trying to recall why we do what we do, we crazy Catholics. And some holdout Episcopalians and Lutherans, bless ‘em.
Friday was different. It was World AIDS Day – a special day of remembrance and resolve. For HIV-AIDS is still a world-wide affliction threatening millions of people here and especially in poorer nations – far worse than Zika or the Ebola virus, and at least for now, the ‘flu.
Like cancer, the news that someone has a potentially deadly virus is one of the most frightening things a person can ever hear, next perhaps to a diagnosis of cancer. People often turn to God when they learn of it. Not in prayer, or in hope, but in disbelief and anger. I suppose we all have a tendency to hold God responsible when things go wrong. After all, isn’t God supposed to take care of us? Especially if we say our prayers, vote our conscience, try to keep the Ten Commandments, and put our envelopes in the collection every Sunday. We even hear Isaiah trying to lay the blame on God…. “Why do you let us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?”
Whether it’s AIDS or an earthquake, a drive-by shooting or a terrorist attack, or even bad weather (or especially bad weather, which we’ve had plenty of this year), we want protection and ultimately we want it from God, unless we’re atheists and probably want it from the government. But if we think for a bit, the way Isaiah does, we begin to realize that the real question is not why God lets such awful things happen, but why and how we do. Something seems particularly wrong when senseless tragedies befall the innocent. But is it God’s fault that children are dying of hunger and disease in Yemen, Syria, and Bangladesh? Or that families are wiped out because of faulty gas pipes or improperly placed space heaters? Or terrorist attacks? Or the devastation of storms and earthquakes?
If Isaiah seems to suggest that God lets such things happen because of our guilt, it is by way of saying that our thoughtless way of living brings such tragedies on ourselves and others, including the innocent –and if God does not prevent it, that is not because God wants it that way. St. Paul simply tells us that God will strengthen us to the end, so that we can be blameless on the day of Our Lord Jesus Christ. He does not say that God will miraculously protect us from the consequences of our sins — or even the sins and mistakes of others. God will strengthen us. That is what he promises.
That is why it is important to pay attention to the theme that links today’s readings – waiting on God. Waiting for God. “No ear has ever heard,” Isaiah says, “no eye ever seen, any God but you doing such deeds for those who wait for you.” The word appears again in the second reading, from St. Paul’s letter to the Christian community at Corinth, that wild Greek port town. “He says, “the witness I bore to Christ has been so confirmed among you that you lack no spiritual gift as you wait for the revelation of our Lord Jesus.” The gospel from Mark does not mention waiting, but watching, although the connection here is important. What we do while we wait is watch. When I looked up the word “wait,” I found that it comes from an Old German root, ‘wahta,’ which actually means “to watch.” Watching means to look for someone, keeping vigilant, staying awake, which is one of Mark’s favorite ways of saying “waiting.”
All the gospels warn us that unless we watch out, unless we stay awake, waiting for God, we will miss out. For Christ comes like a thief in the night. Jesus is telling us to be mindful, to pay attention to the presence of God hidden in the events of our daily lives, whether minor exasperations or major crises and real tragedies.
Such waiting demands patience, stamina, and courage. We may not tire of promoting justice, of making peace, of being merciful, of letting love guide our words and actions, no matter how long the wait. In Isaiah’s words, “Would that you might meet us doing right, that we were mindful of you in all our ways!”
And that is why we wait. And watch. As Advent begins, let us pray, then, that as we wait in joyful hope, we will also watch out for Christ in the person of the least and lowliest of those he calls his sisters and brothers. Atheists, too. May they have a Happy Solstice.