Another year has sped by, or it seems so to those who are of a certain age. For the young, it most likely dragged on as the world went through yet another cycle of the shape-shifting coronavirus first called Covid-19. Social unrest and unprecedented natural disasters followed suit. In all, 2021 was not a year of public peace and social well-being, nor for most of the world’s people, of prosperity.
We now have come around in the Church’s year to the commemoration of the beginning of Jesus’ ministry. The joyful feasts of Christmastide are now hopeful memories, as the season of Christmastide ends with evening prayer tonight. Today we already sense urgency in the call for renewal of mind and heart. The gospels themselves move in a flash from the infancy narratives to the public manifestation of Jesus as the Promised One decades later. We know nothing about his formative years in Nazareth, although we can infer a great deal from what his message was when he began to preach.
All four gospels point to the manifestation of Jesus as prophet and messiah at the moment he was baptized by John in the Jordan. All testify that Jesus experienced an astonishing revelation, one shared by John the Baptist and apparently some of those gathered on the banks of the river awaiting their turn to be plunged into the water of redemption. Mark, Matthew, and Luke report a voice avowing “You are my beloved son, with you I am well pleased,” a clear reference to the passage from Isaiah we heard in the first reading: “Behold my servant, whom I uphold, my chosen, in whom my soul delights; I have put my Spirit upon him, he will bring forth justice to the nations” [Isaiah 42:1]. Here, however, the voice is addressing Jesus himself. And all four gospels note the descent of the dove, which John adds “remained on him,” the sign he had been given earlier [John 1:32].
In the second reading, which Luke places very early in the history of the movement that would become the Christian church, Peter alludes to this when he announces to the houseful of Cornelius, the Roman centurion, who was already a proselyte, “how God anointed [Jesus] with the Holy Spirit and Power” [Acts 10:3]. And, the account continues, “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit fell upon all who heard the word. The circumcised believers who had come with Peter were astounded that the gift of the Holy Spirit had been poured out even on the Gentiles, for they heard them speaking in tongues and extolling God. Then Peter said, ‘Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?’ So he ordered them to be baptized in the name of Jesus Christ” [Acts 10:44-48].
The fire on the earth had begun to spread.
In Jewish tradition, the Messiah was anointed with sacred oils to confirm him as the one through whom God would save the Chosen People. And that is also why every new Christian is anointed with holy oil when baptized. A Voice may not come from heaven, a visitation by a dove is unlikely, but each is recognized and proclaimed as God’s very child, called in the same way to save the world with the gifts we have received. St. Paul would insist, “Do you not know that all of us who have been baptized into Christ Jesus were baptized into his death? Therefore we have been buried with him by baptism into death, so that, just as Christ was raised from the dead by the glory of the Father, so we too might walk in newness of life” [Rom 6:3-4].
As St. Gregory of Nyssa so beautifully preached, “Jesus rises from the waters; the world rises with him.”
“A voice bears witness to him from heaven, his place of origin. The Spirit descends in bodily form like the dove that so long ago announced the ending of the flood and so gives honor to the body that is one with God.
“Today let us do honor to Christ’s baptism and celebrate this feast in holiness. Be cleansed entirely and continue to be cleansed. Nothing gives such pleasure God as the conversion and salvation of men, for whom his every word and every revelation exist. He wants you to become a living force for all mankind, lights shining the world” [Sermon 39 ‘in Sancta Lumina,’ PG 36, 350-59].
On this day, the last Sunday of the Christmas cycle, when Christians around the world commemorate the baptism of Jesus and the beginning of his public ministry, it is well to remember that goodness and nobility of purpose are not only possible, but already and always at work in the world. We do not have to succumb to the forces of hatred, bigotry, and self aggrandizement at the expense of the common good. The grace of God is forever at hand.
As the days grow shorter before the great feast of the Nativity, it is sometimes hard to be “of good cheer.” Each week seems to bring news of more tragedy and disaster, of political conflict, war and rumors of war, not to mention economic hardship and the spread of contagion. Not much to celebrate — if we’re paying attention at all.
But the Sundays of Advent sound a different tone, one that the world needs right now. Scripture does not deny the sorrows and sufferings of life. But as we see in today’s readings, it offers an alternative to depression, desperation, and despair.
The joyful promise of today’s readings first calls on the prophet Baruch, son of Neriah, according to tradition the prophet Jeremiah’s scribe and a major compiler of the Hebrew scriptures. He appears to have been deported to Egypt with Jeremiah after the fall of Jerusalem to the Babylonians in 587 or 586 BCE. Citing the passage from Isaiah we are so familiar with from its musical citation in Handel’s “Messiah,” Baruch looks forward to the return of the captives to Judah on a great broad highway: “For God has commanded that every lofty mountain be made low and that the ancient valleys and gorges filled to level ground that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God” [Bar 5: 7-9. See Is 40:3-4].
The responsory verses from Psalm 126 continue the theme of the joyful pilgrimage back to Jerusalem after decades of captivity in far-off Babylon, now southern Iraq. The passage from St. Paul’s letter to the Christians at Philippi expresses the same longing as he looks forward to the return of Jesus in glory: “My prayer is that your love may more and more abound…so that with a clear conscience and blameless conduct you may learn to value the things that really matter, up to the very day of Christ” [Phil 1:8-9].
The gospel reading returns to the jubilant prophecy of Isaiah cited by Baruch, as Luke prepares us for his account of the ministries of John the Baptist and Jesus himself. It is not only that John’s was a voice crying in the wilderness, but more accurately “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God…” [Is 40:3]. Not only or even especially in the desert, but in the wilderness of our minds and hearts, so that we may “be found rich in the harvest of justice which Jesus Christ has ripened in us,” as Paul has it.
Luke is at pains to identify the moment at which John and then Jesus appear in the real wilderness of the Jordan valley, citing the custom of dating events from the accession of a king or emperor as no common calendar existed. The Emperor Tiberius Caesar, the stepson of Caesar Augustus, reigned from 14 CE until 37 – which would place the public appearance of both John and Jesus in the year 29 CE, which has become the standard by which most events in the Christian scriptures have been dated. That would make Jesus about 33 when he joined John at the Jordan River, the age favored by tradition.
Palestine was not enjoying a particularly peaceful period. The Pax Augustana had given way to a sense of oppression and growing resentment at the Roman occupation. In the preceding years, several revolts had been mercilessly crushed by the Roman army. Taxes were high. Injustice was commonplace. In the midst of the disquiet, John’s message was simple and clear – what was required was to change the way of thinking—”repentance,” a sorry translation of the term “metanoia.” He chose to signify this change of heart and heart by baptism.
Bathing in the famed Jordan River was not uncommon, and ritual baths could be found in towns and villages as well as the city of Jerusalem. Some sects such as the Essenes practiced baptism daily, as a sign of internal purification. John’s practice was different. No longer did those expressing their desire for renewal plunge themselves in the water, but John himself baptized them. After his death by martyrdom, John’s custom of baptizing was continued by his followers, including Jesus’ own disciples. It is the form that is still used today. Luke also points out that John’s baptism was not simply a rite of symbolic purification but led to the forgiveness of sins. It still does.
It is here that Luke turns to the prophecy of Isaiah, the fulfilment of the ancient promise. The pivot-point of the moral and spiritual history of the world has arrived.
In this year of so many sorrows, as the wonderful Feast of the Nativity of Jesus draws near, I am reminded of the splendid song from Jerry Herman’s great musical Mame, in which after losing her fortune in the Wall Street collapse of 1929 the irrepressible Auntie Mame wistfully proclaims, “We need a little Christmas”:
“For I’ve grown a little leaner,
Grown a little colder,
Grown a little sadder,
Grown a little older…”
As we face yet another season of uncertainty, sickness, and conflict, we don’t need more plastic junk under the so-called “holiday tree” or empty variety shows,
“… we need a little music,
Need a little laughter,
Need a little singing
Ringing through the rafter,
And we need a little snappy
‘Happy ever after,’
Need a little Christmas now.
In truth, we need a lot of Christmas. The whole world needs more Christmas, the real Christmas, the celebration of justice, peace, and love, of kindness and benevolence. That’s what Advent is about.
Watching the cottonwood seed tufts floating lazily by on a golden afternoon in rural Ireland, seeing the blossoms on the philadelphus opening and filling the cool evening air with their intoxicating perfume, hearing the faint hum of bees in the background, it is difficult to bear in mind that the planet is in peril – all of it, the trees, flowers, animals, and overhead the brilliant blue sky, and the calm Irish Sea in the distance. That, however, is the fact, however much we wish it were not the case.
This past week, thanks to the amazing if sometimes pesky magic of Zoom, I was able to attend the second Catholic Climate Covenant Conference co-sponsored by Creighton University. In a world that often seems too disinclined to take the increasingly necessary steps to preserve the global environment, the Conference was a truly a beacon of hope.
On this Sunday which focuses our attention on the task of the true shepherd, I would be remiss not to single out the superb opening address by
Cardinal Blaise Cupich of Chicago, who situated the conference theologically and pastorally in the great encyclical of Pope Francis, Laudato Sí. (His address has been printed in its entirely by the National Catholic Reporter on-line. It was well worth reading – more than once: https://www.ncronline.org/news/earthbeat/cardinal-cupich-laudato-si-calls-us-economic-and-spiritual-conversion )
The many sessions with youth leaders in the Catholic environmental movement was especially reassuring. It has been evident from surveys conducted from just before the publication of Laudato Sí until this year that distressingly few priests and deacons tend to address environmental issues in their preaching. Although Pope Francis’ popularity has held steady across denominal lines, if less so among very conservative Catholics, his environmental appeal has taken years to motivate a general positive response even among the clergy. That, however, is changing, as the urgency of the situation becomes ever more manifest. A growing number of dioceses have instituted agencies to promote environmental awareness and action. Grass-roots organizations have grown exponentially, especially among the young people so well represented at the Conference.
If there are grounds for hope in the future, it lies here – in the “next generation.”
The world is blest with a number of leaders like Pope Francis and Cardinal Cupich who are leading the way to a hopeful future, which brings me back to the theme of today’s readings. Both Jeremiah and Jesus lament the poor leadership of the official shepherds of the people, specifically the religious hierarchy. Jesus may have known something about sheep and shepherds, although it is unlikely that he would have encountered many in his experience as a village construction worker and then an iterant preacher and healer. None of his immediate followers were taken from the folds. But even less than Jeremiah here, Jesus is not so much concerned with shepherds, but with their sheep, their followers.
As he will relate in another parable, wayward shepherds not only mislead the sheep, but endanger them. The hills of Palestine were a perilous place to get lost. Wild animals still prowled, and human thieves and thugs were plentiful. Careful and effective leadership requires courage and resourcefulness, a point Jesus will drive home in his parable of the Good Shepherd, the True Leader.
As I become aware at a distance of the disastrous fires in the Pacific Northwest, and the deadly and almost unprecedented rainfall and floods in Germany and Belgium, and other increasing consequences of global climate change, I am convinced that the need for concerted and effective action has never been greater. It is refreshing to be able to bear some good news in that regard.
God is a better gardener than I am, for sure. About fifteen years ago, I planted a Cedar of Lebanon sapling at the corner of the back garden. It took root and grew, and now is vying with the neighboring sycamores, ash trees, and the overbearing cottonwood poplars for a rightful measure of sunshine. A friend in Lebanon, who is trying to bring back these nearly extinct great cedars, places compost pots beneath the branches of the trees he has planted to catch the seeds when the mature cones open. When the seeds sprout, he plants them wherever he can. He is making great strides. In about 700 years, those hundreds of tiny seedlings will once again tower over the sides of Mount Lebanon. That requires patience and trust.
In today’s first reading, Ezekiel likens God to a forester who takes a short cut, snipping off a tender shoot from the crest of a cedar and
tenderly transplanting it to a mountainside in Israel, where Lebanon cedars normally do not grow. But God assures us that it will become a huge, majestic tree, home to all kinds of birds and wildlife. Expect great things, but be patient and trust.
In his parable, Jesus uses a much smaller and seemingly insignificant plant to make the same point, starting with a tiny seed (larger than a chia seed, but that doesn’t grow in Palestine). Carefully watered and tended, the little mustard seed develops into a good-sized shrub, which did happen in his time in the mountain regions. But Jesus is having a little fun with his audience, as he liked to do. His mustard plant will not rival the towering cedar, its frail branches filled with birds and wildlife, but that is not the point.
That would be the character needed for a good gardener or farmer, especially in fairly dry and rocky terrain, as much of Palestine is. Jesus, like Ezekiel and Paul, is referring to trust and patience, the ability to let nature – and nature’s God – work their miracle of life in the right way at the right time. Don’t expect instant success.
Patience is certainly not a virtue much in evidence today. As my venerable old first-grade teacher said, “I want what I want when I want it and I get it.” Sometimes. The waiting is hard. But that is where Paul’s advice to the Greek Christians of Corinth, a bustling port city, comes right to the point: “We walk by faith, not by sight.”
At the moment, world leaders from the seven major economies of the world are meeting on the rocky shores of Cornwall to hammer out policies and programs for dealing with the enormous challenges facing peoples everywhere – the Sars Covid-19 pandemic, which is devastating the poor countries of world, fragile peace accords, and perhaps the greatest challenge ever faced by humankind – a drastic climate change that will continue to disrupt not only economies, but the very existence of hundred of thousands if not millions of animal and plant species, including us.
These challenges will not be met and resolved overnight. But with trust and patience, they can, and must be, and will be resolved, if we only learn the lesson of the mustard seed and the towering Cedars of Lebanon. It will also require some very hard work. But humankind was set on this earth to garden, to tend and nurture Creation [Gen 2:15]. It’s time to get on with it.
Mother’s Day dawned here on a chilly, drizzly morning, but that didn’t matter to the thousands of mothers and their children who at last are able to see each other again, to hug, and kiss each other’s cheeks. For those of us who have lost our mothers, it is a time to remember and reflect, and to share of the joy of reunion as the pall of separation is gradually lifted from the lives of those under the threat of pandemic. Today, more than ever, we see, and touch, and feel the mighty power and tender touch of love, the strongest force in the universe.
Fittingly, the readings for this sixth Sunday of Easter are about acceptance, love, and union. This is especially true in the second and third readings, which
reflect on the great love that God has shown in the life, ministry, and death of Jesus. And Jesus charges us, as we heard, to love as God loves and whom God loves – fully, without stint or measure. And thus to save the world.
The opening story of the welcome of the Roman centurion Cornelius and his whole household into the community of faith shows us how God’s love joins together differing peoples into one great household of salvation. In Peter’s words, “I truly understand that God shows no partiality, but in every nation anyone who fears him and does what is right is acceptable to him … he is Lord of all.” [Acts 10:34-36]. Divine love includes all human beings regardless of race, national origin, gender, social class, or any other barrier that people set up that creates division. As we are commanded to do likewise.
Today’s second reading and the gospel are specifically about love — God’s love for us manifested in the love of Jesus so wonderfully portrayed in the long farewell discourse during his Last Supper with his friends.
Throughout scripture, God’s love is likened to that of a mother concerned for her children. One of the most endearing passages comes from the Book of Isaiah where the voice of God promises, “Can a woman forget her nursing child, or show no compassion for the child of her womb? Even these may forget, yet I will not forget you” [Isaiah 49:15]. Jesus also compared himself to a mother hen gathering her chicks under her wings to protect them [Matthew 23:37].
In the fourteenth century, the anonymous mystic we call Julian of Norwich, who was, by the way, the first woman to write a book in English, wrote simply enough in her great work, Revelations of Divine Love, “As truly as God is our Father, so truly is God our Mother” [Chapter 59].
That should be a steadying idea, a wonderful source of hope for us on this Mothers’ Day, and throughout the world. At some point today, we should offer a prayer for the mothers in Syria, Yemen, Iraq, Palestine, and Myanmar who stand every day outside the prisons where sons and daughters, husbands, fathers, and even mothers themselves languish for months without contact with their loved ones or access to legal counsel, or even international agencies. And we should think of the mothers of our own soldiers who wait daily, praying that their children and husbands will be safe, that they will escape the physical and spiritual horrors of war. We should also bear in our hearts the love as well as the sorrow of the multitude of mothers in our own land who daily bury their children killed by gun violence.
And on this Mother’s Day, so long anticipated as this nation and much of the world begins its emergence from the long night of pandemic, we should not forget our original mother, Nature herself – “Mother Nature” to whom the whole world of living creatures owes for its existence. The description of Nature as our mother has a long history, one that was abruptly curtailed in Western Europe with the beginning of the Industrial Age, when Creation was increasingly denuded of its maternal attributes, exploited, ravaged, and rendered less and less hospitable to life. And her children continue to inflict grave harm on mothering Nature by the industrial poisoning of the land, seas and air, causing potentially irreversible global climate change, and the likely onset of the Sixth Great Extinction of living species on earth.
Humanity and all the other creatures on Earth are paying a terrible price for our callowness and rapacity. And the cost will only go up unless we act globally and swiftly. We can do better. Much, much better. And we must. Like our own mothers, Nature deserves and sometimes demands respect and protection. Humanity stands at a great crossroads in that respect — just as the many mothers of our own land and throughout the battle-torn and violent world require and deserve justice.
The message of Easter and the Easter season now drawing to a close remains simple but far, it seems, from the desperate grasp of far too many mothers: “Death shall have no dominion.” For all our mothers and for the Earth, we can and must give life, restoring those values that we associate with this sweetest of days – care, peace, hope, love, and beauty. Then we will all have a truly Happy Mother’s Day.
Death’s strong bands have been broken! That good news could hardly come at a more needed time, enveloped as we seem to be by those very bands – the pandemic, random acts of violence, insurrection, uprisings, accidents, illness, and just the inevitable toll of advanced age. But the faith we celebrate today reminds us that death’s dominion is temporary and incomplete. For Jesus is risen!
We first turn to Mark this year for what may be the earliest of the gospel accounts of the Resurrection – excepting St. Paul’s repeated
testimony. He never tires of preaching it, just as he constantly reminds us how the price paid in the blood of the Cross led to this surprising turn. For no one expected Jesus to rise from the dead. Most of his disciples couldn’t believe it when they heard the news. Were they fearful, slow-witted, or just skeptical, like Thomas in the gospel of John? Mark tells us that the women who went to the tomb to anoint a dead body were so frightened to find it open and the body missing that they fled, telling no one what they had found.
Other, later gospels fill in the rest of the story. The women did not stay silent. There followed a time of confused and conflicting accounts of the details, rushed visits to the site, just as we might expect even today after a wildly astonishing event. But the most astonishing, incredible part was not that the tomb had that had held the dead body of Jesus was empty, but that the women had encountered him powerfully alive in the garden itself. Then two downcast (and slow-witted) disciples meet him late that afternoon on the road to Emmaus and, finally, the cowering disciples suddenly find him in their midst in upper room itself.
And so the world shifted on its spiritual axis, and at least to the eyes of faith has not been the same since. Death’s dominion has been destroyed. But that is not all. It is only the beginning, as Paul reminded his followers so early on in the story of Christianity:
“Set your minds on things that are above,
not on things that are on earth,
for you have died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God.
When Christ who is your life is revealed,
then you also will be revealed with him in glory” [Col 3:2-4].
Is it less difficult or more so for us to believe all this almost two thousand years later? The world tells us it cannot be so. Skeptics among Christians themselves often grow evasive about the bodily resurrection of Jesus. It is, after all, much easier and much simpler to think of the resurrection as simply a spiritual event in the minds of his followers, the raising of the memory of Jesus to indelibility because of the power of his message and his courage in the face of an unjust and cruel execution. But how can we account for that unlikely reversal on the part of those cowering fisherman and tax collectors, the fearful women and skeptical (and, yes, slow-witted) disciples? Especially confronted, as they were, by the increasingly bloody efforts of the religious establishment and imperial forces to suppress their message?
Today, two millennia later, the Resurrection continues to empower the faith of Christians just as it did when Jesus himself appeared in the midst of his frightened disciples on Easter night. Jesus still appears among us when we are tempted to lose faith, when church scandals, the lure of money, and the deep fears that haunt our sleepless nights threaten to weaken or destroy our faith. How else can we explain the daily miracles of faith that give us new hope and the will even to begin over again if our marriages go bad or we lose our pensions or our churches burn down or our children die in senseless drive-by shootings or senseless accidents?
“I am with you always,” he said.
So perhaps what those frightened women had cause to fear that morning so long ago was the sudden realization that somehow, despite everything, despite the horror of Jesus’ death, despite the paralysis that drove the Eleven into hiding, despite their own sorrow, doubts, and anxiety, somehow it was — unthinkably, unimaginably, incredibly — true.
Christos anesti! Christ is risen.
Although today’s readings focus on disease, specifically leprosy, and more importantly, compassion and healing, it is also the traditional feast of St. Valentine (AKA Valentines Day) and for Catholics around the world, World Marriage Day, an observance begun back in 1981 as a project of Worldwide Marriage Encounter and celebrated annually on the second Sunday of February. It is the culmination of a week of preparation known as National Marriage Week. This year’s theme has been “To Have, To Hold, To Honor.”
This week, however, most of us probably paid less attention to love and marriage (except perhaps on the White House Lawn) than to the Senate trial of the former president of the United States, now mercifully ended, if the drama can be expected to drag on for months if not years to come.
It is especially appropriate to focus on honor at this time in our collective history, when so little of it seems to be in evidence where it is most needed. No less should we recover our sense of compassion and healing, not least because of the Covid pandemic still raging throughout the world and the economic hardship it has left in its wake.
The cure of a leper in ancient Palestine may seem to offer little opportunity to reflect on the scripture of the day with
an eye on the TV screen (or as Karl Barth had it, the bible in one hand and the newspaper in the other). But it is worth recalling that Hansen’s Disease (the proper name) and similar skin infections were terrifying to people millennia before the advent of antibiotics. Rare today, except in the poorer parts of the tropical world where between 10 to 15 million people still suffer from it because of poverty and neglect, there are cases of it even in the United States where pockets of poverty and neglect still fester.
Caused by a bacterial infection, Hansen’s disease is only mildly contagious and rarely fatal, and can be controlled with antibiotics and other treatments – if these are available. But in the ancient world, it was believed to result from some spiritual failing. There was no cure short of a miracle. (For those with a good memory, the culminating scenes from the 1959 MGM film Ben-Hur accurately depicts the horror and suffering innocent people endured because of this dread disease.)
We don’t call people who suffer from Hansen’s Disease “lepers” anymore, exactly because of the disgrace that made the term a catch-all phrase for anyone who is socially repugnant. But for that same reason, there are still many “lepers” among us today, it is those lepers who occupy the real focus of the readings from this morning’s liturgy. We are presented with a serious conflict: how we tend to treat people who frighten us or seem to threaten us, and how we ought to behave in their regard as those who profess to follow Jesus.
In it here that the second reading is important. St. Paul tells us “do not give anyone offense, whether pagan or Jew or Christian” [1 Cor. 10:32] — something in itself we could think long and hard about, as anti-Semitism once again increases here and abroad. The word Paul uses is stronger than what we mean by “offense” — it means “to chop at someone, to cut them down, to attack them.”
And this brings us to Mark’s account of the Jesus and the leper, which follows directly after the story of his curing the man afflicted by an evil spirit which we heard last week.
Jesus not only allows the suffering outcast to approach him, he actually touches him — which immediately made Jesus unclean in the eyes of the Law. But like the woman with the hemorrhage in Luke’s gospel, the leper’s desperate appeal touches Jesus and by his faith he, too, is healed. Their faith opened the way for the grace of God to heal both of these victims. But here, each seems to violate the very norm that St. Paul endorses — not to give offense to anyone. Both the leper and the unfortunate woman gave plenty of offense.
What must have amazed Jesus’ disciples and outraged his enemies is that he took no notice. He saw only need, and recognized only faith. Not to be offended is at least as important as not giving offense. Not when we are dealing with those desperate in their need for help and assistance.
We would do well to remember that God is particularly attentive to those who suffer oppression, discouragement, and outright persecution — the poor, the neglected, the forsaken. “I did not come to call the righteous,” Jesus said, “but sinners” [Luke 5:32]. It is not those who profess to be well who need a doctor, but those who know they are ill. It is our need that gives us title to the mercy and grace of God.
When we are able to welcome and assist those the world despises, to recognize in them our sisters and brothers, then we will have glimpsed the kingdom of God. Then we will experience our own healing, and the healing of our nation and the world.
Let the last word today be about honor, compassion, and the greatest force for healing in the world today – unflinching and unconditional love:
World Marriage Day Prayer
“Father, … we thank you for your tremendous gift of the sacrament of Matrimony. Help us to witness to its glory by a life of growing intimacy. Teach us the beauty of forgiveness so we may become more and more one in heart, mind and body. Strengthen our dialogue and help us become living signs of your love. Make us grow in love with our church so we may renew the Body of Christ. Make us a sign of unity in the name of Jesus, Our Lord and brother. Amen” (Fr. Bill Dilgen, S.M.M.)
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.
Although not much heralded in the news media, the now-annual Christmas nativity scene was erected and blessed on Saturday morning in Chicago’s Daley Center Plaza. It is the only religious portrayal of the “reason for the season” in the area, but at least it is there. And today we observe the beginning of Advent, the period of preparation for the celebration of the birth of Jesus. But with plastic and plaster nativity scenes now populating church gardens and suburban lawns, there’s not much left to anticipate. Santa Claus came to town early, too. Well, God knows we need a little cheer. Not by chance, Christmas decorations went on sale in big-box stores a week before Halloween.
It has been a dreadful year, for sure, despite welcome bright moments. The Covid-19 Crisis is, of course, on everyone’s mind, followed closely by the economic calamity that has followed and the most contentious presidential election in modern history. 2020 will linger in our lives and memories for months to come, if not years.
But I was particularly struck during the past week by stunning contrasts as the nation observed Thanksgiving Day. As the United States surpassed world records and even its own with Covid infections and deaths, tens of millions of citizens ignored pleas from the Centers for Disease Control and a multitude of government agencies to stay home then jammed airports and bus stations for trips home to celebrate feasts and frolic with family and friends. The medical community, already besieged with nearly intolerable efforts to save lives, has expressed grave concern that the inevitable surge in infection and death will cast a ghastly pall over the Christmas season and well into the new year.
But the most glaring contrast was the juxtaposition of scenes of millions of citizens lined up in cars and on foot to receive food packages to sustain their families during this desperate period of economic meltdown with images of food-laden tables and happy multitudes dining to capacity on turkey with all the trimmings. On the other hand, I was deeply impressed by the massive efforts by volunteer groups, many if not most, associated with food pantries and churches, to distribute care packages to the 26 million Americans unsure of where their next meal is coming from. One out of every six children in America now goes to bed at night hungry.
We have some work to do as we look forward to the coming of our Savior.
To begin with, we would do well to recall that Covid-19 is not the only threat to health, well-being, and economic stability. Next Tuesday, Dec. 1, has been designated as World AIDS Day, since 1988 an annual call to care and action ‘to call attention to the global HIV epidemic, to increase HIV awareness and knowledge, to speak out against HIV stigma, and to call for an increased response to move toward Ending the HIV Epidemic: A Plan for America.’ [On December 1st at 2:00 pm ET, join the Live with Leadership World AIDS Day Edition with federal and community speakers. Learn how submit questions in advance or during the conversation.]
HIV-AIDS is still a world-wide affliction threatening millions of people here and especially in poorer nations –worse than Covid-19, SARS, Zika, the Ebola virus, and the ‘flu.
Whether it’s AIDS or Covid-19, wildfires, earthquakes, drive-by shootings, terrorist attacks, or even bad weather (which we’ve had plenty of this year), we want protection and ultimately we want it from God. But we even hear Isaiah trying to lay the blame for such bad things on God…. “Why do you let us wander from your ways and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?” Please save us from ourselves…
But if we think for a bit, 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. 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, wildfires, and earthquakes?
Isaiah seems to suggest that if God lets such things happen it is by way of saying that our thoughtless way of living brings such tragedies on ourselves and others, including the innocent. 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 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 passage 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, unless we stay awake, waiting for God, we will miss out. For the 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, and then to act. That is how we will be prepared to meet our Lord.
Such waiting demands patience, stamina, and courage. We may tire of promoting justice, of making peace, of being merciful, of letting love guide our words and actions, but no matter how long the wait our task is clear. 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.
Tomorrow’s observance of the Triumph of the Cross marks the half-way point to the great Paschal mysteries that ordinarily begin around the middle of March. It’s a moment to recall the dying words of Jesus, which are so much at the heart of his teaching: “Father, forgive them, for they know not what they do. (Luke 23:34). For today’s readings focus on forgiving and being forgiven, sometimes called the Law of Christ. It’s not a comfortable message, especially when great harm has been done. And after the great harm of 9/11, commemorated again last Friday, and all the outrages against people and property since then, it might seem natural for people to want revenge, to seek retribution. But what have we gained from the slaughter that followed? (See Sir 27:30–28:9, Rom 14:7-9, and Mt 18:21-35.)
Since 2001, close to a million people have died in the wars we declared in our desire for vengeance, a majority of them most likely innocent civilians. In 2018, Brown University’s Costs of War Project released an estimate of the total death toll from the U.S. wars in three countries: Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan. “The numbers, while conservatively estimated, are staggering. Brown’s researchers estimate that at least 480,000 people have been directly killed by violence over the course of these conflicts, more than 244,000 of them civilians. In addition to those killed by direct acts of violence, the number of indirect deaths — those resulting from disease, displacement, and the loss of critical infrastructure — is believed to be several times higher, running into the millions.” [https://theintercept.com/2018/11/19/civilian-casualties-us-war-on-terror/]
Over a thousand European civilians also died in retaliatory attacks and other terrorist acts in Paris, Brussels, Nice, Berlin, Manchester, London, Madrid and Barcelona. The cost in national treasure has been enormous – more than $4.8 trillion for our wars in Iraq, Afghanistan, and Pakistan alone.
More recently, according to the Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED), the death toll from the U.S.-supported war in Yemen, is now over 100,000, including more than 12,000 civilians, as well as estimates of more than 85,000 dead as a result of an ongoing famine due to the war. [https://acleddata.com/2020/03/25/acled-resources-war-in-yemen/]
Add to these four examples, the staggering loss of life in the United States from gun violence, including suicides and accident: “When all firearm injuries are considered, over 100,000 Americans are killed or injured each year as a result of firearms and nonfatal firearm injuries have increased from 22.1 to 26.7 per 100,000 population during the last decade.” [https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5849457/]
We don’t seem to know how to stop the killing and the destruction. And yet we read today in Ben Sira, “The vengeful will suffer the Lord’s vengeance…”
Yet forgiveness is a recurrent theme in Christian teaching. In his letter to the Romans, St. Paul says “Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave it to the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord” [See Deut. 32:35]. No, “if your enemy is hungry, feed him; if he is thirsty, give him drink; for by so doing you will heap burning coals upon his head.” [Rom 12: 19-20.] But do we really believe that? Are we likely to write it into our campaign speeches and foreign policy?
If we have come to think of forgiveness as something distinctively Christian, it is certainly at the heart of Jesus’ teaching. But today especially we find the same message in the Book of Sirach, expressed three hundred years earlier: “Forgive your neighbor’s injustice, then, when you pray, your own sins will be forgiven.” He makes the point three time over, and in each instance he links being forgiven with forgiving. If we are slow in healing from the terrible events of 2001, perhaps it is because we are still lacking in forgiveness.
For Paul the opposite of vengeance is active forgiveness, as it was for Jesus. For they were schooled in the Jewish Law, where it was written very early on, “You shall not take vengeance or bear any grudge against the sons of your own people, but you shall love your neighbor as yourself: I am the Lord” [Lev. 19:18].
One of the most enduring memories I have of the events of 9/11 is the image of hundreds of thousands, probably millions of people around the world, gathered that night and in the nights that followed, holding candles and praying for the victims who perished and the survivors. I distinctly remember a woman in France shouting “Today we are all Americans!” — a cry that was echoed over and over around the entire planet. That is, until the desire for vengeance overrode the possibility of healing and we let loose the dogs of war that continue to prowl to this day.
Like those of Ben Sira and St. Paul, Jesus’ message to us today and every day remains the same – we say it so frequently that it has probably ceased to have much meaning – forgive us our trespasses – our debts, our sins – as we forgive those who sin against us. The metaphor of debt-forgiveness, cancellation, that we find so prominent in Jesus’ parable, is not an accident, as we see in Matthew’s version of the Lord’s Prayer: “Forgive us our debts, as we also have forgiven our debtors” (Matt 6:12). Forgiveness means writing off the debt, and is still used that way in banking. It is an apt metaphor and one perhaps never more appropriate.
Above all else, the cross of Christ is a sign not of punishment, but of love, a love that the power of hate, the lure of revenge, and the might of oppression can not stifle, “a love,” as the old hymn has it, “so amazing, so divine that it demands our soul, our life, our all….” [“When I survey the Wondrous Cross,” Isaac Watts, 1674-1748].