This is the darkest part of the year, at least in the northern hemisphere, but the darkness is not only because of the fewer daylight hours leading up to the winter solstice. We have been warned that disregarding the warnings of the medical community would lead to a catastrophic rise in morbidity and death from the Covid virus. That dark prediction has already begun to be fulfilled tragically and is expected only to worsen as Christmas approaches. Clearly, the voice crying in the wilderness is not only that of John the Baptist, but it is his prophetic warning to which the gospel reading directs our attention today.
Advent has traditionally been considered a time for joyful reflection, and to be sure there is reason to be joyful, even today in the midst of great personal and social distress. We hear that in the other readings as well, part of the sword of contradiction the coming of the Savior brought into the world.
John’s message, which would be taken up by Jesus himself, calls us to repentance and forgiveness, the keys that will unlock the gate of joy this
Christmas. But we easily misunderstand what the gospels mean by “repentance.” In the Greek translation used by the earliest Christian writers ‘metanoia’ does not mean donning sackcloth and ashes and going around beating our breasts figuratively or in fact. To repent means to change our way of thinking and therefore our behavior, to reverse a decision, to change direction. That shift is expressed first of all in forgiving. Here, God is the model we must emulate.
In today’s first reading, we encounter the passage from the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, so memorably set to music by Handel at the beginning of the Messiah: “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].
By all accounts, Jerusalem still needs some comfort, riven as it is by sectarianism and strife. Isaiah tells us that “her iniquity is pardoned.” The Hebrew word for “pardon” here is ‘ratsah,’ which means to be pleased with someone, especially because they have satisfied a debt. They have been reconciled, like our bank accounts. More than that: the debt has been totally forgiven. All that is past, wiped out, the slate cleaned, the debt paid. And here, it is God, who had earlier doubled the penalty for Israel’s rejection of the path of justice, who is pardoning and reconciling.
The financial metaphor involved in the preaching of forgiveness carried over into Christian times. Jesus uses it frequently. We echo it when we speak of our debts to God and each other. Bankers, lawyers, and mortgage companies still speak also 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 of similes, 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 became sadly evident again in the first week of Advent. School shootings, terrorist incidents, assaults on citizens by carjackers and other thugs, and the terrible toll of the coronavirus, now the leading cause of death in the United States, are still the daily bread of the news outlets and the source of grief and even bitterness to a growing number of our citizens.
And so in the midst of distress and sorrow the message of Scripture today is that turning back to God, finding our way again, 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].
Our next reading from 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 ‘metanoia” [2 Peter 3:9] – that new way of thinking. Moreover, we have no time to waste. The need for a change of mind and heart is urgent now.
The opening of the Gospel of Mark that provides our third reading does not mention Jesus. But it returns us forcefully to the theme of repentance and forgiveness that will occupy so much of his teaching by introducing the main character of the Advent readings. John the Baptizer came to prepare Christ’s way in the wilderness. It was John who first preached ‘metanoia,’ the change of mind and heart that leads to forgiveness of sins. After John’s imprisonment and execution, which must have shaken him to his core, Jesus began to preach 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. Today for individuals and nations, that can be the greatest Christmas present of all. Present tribulation will end. The joy of redemption lasts forever.