Forgiveness, Comfort, Joy: the Second Sunday of Advent

We are still in the wilderness, still confronting the depth of our sin and failure, but today, with Isaiah’s prophecy and the appearance of John the Baptist, a new note is sounded. We repent, not in order to win God’s forgiveness but because we have already been forgiven. That is the great comforting (= strengthening) that Isaiah proclaims in chapter 40; that John proclaims with such hope and joy when he announces the coming of the Messiah (cf Mark 1.1-8); that is what we look forward to eternally (2 Peter 3.8-14). It is the source of our Advent joy, but it is a joy we must share with others.

Very often our repentance is a bit piecemeal. We want to be at rights with God, but there are a few things we do not want to deal with just yet. Forgiveness of x or y may be one of them. We wish them well in a vague sort of way but, if we’re honest, we’ve not really forgiven: we’ve just put them on probation. That is not God’s way, and it ought not to be ours, either. True repentance means not only welcoming God’s forgiveness of ourselves but welcoming the forgiveness of others also, setting them free, and incidentally, setting ourselves free, too. Unforgiveness chains us to an imperfect past, whether as the one who refuses to forgive or as the one who is unforgiven. Forgiveness opens both parties up to the wonder of God’s love and holiness, making us just a little bit more like him. Isn’t that a comforting and joyful thought to inspire us on this Second Sunday of Advent?

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Eagles’ Wings

From time to time we are all affected by ‘Elijah sickness’ — the temptation to lie down and give up. We become tired, scratchy, fed up. It is no good trying to hector ourselves, still less hector others, into going on. We have instead to resort to a little trickery, stepping to one side rather than meeting a difficulty head on, even retreating in order to advance. Better still, we can rely on another to give us the necessary oomph. I love the imagery of eagles’ wings used in today’s reading from Isaiah (Is. 40.25–31) and elsewhere in scripture to convey the idea of being supported, lifted up, by God when we are wont to droop. It is especially powerful at this time of year when even the most equable can feel torn in many different directions.

I don’t think, however, that we should ignore the fact that the image is not an entirely comfortable one. The eagle is not a tame bird. To be close to one is unsettling (at least, for me it has been). The power, the unpredictability, the amazing beauty and sheen of the bird are a  little frightening — in a good sense. We can also see eagles’ wings as a metaphor of God’s otherness. Throughout Advent we are called to explore this otherness and resist the temptation to domesticate God. Babies in cribs are easy to coo over, but the desert imagery of Isaiah and the other prophets confronts us with something stranger and more terrible: a God who is beyond human understanding, whose love is searing. We have a bad tendency to project onto him our own ideas, as though God should conform to our version of perfection, conservative, liberal or whatever it may be. In our foolishness, we ignore the question Isaiah poses.

Today’s gospel (Matt 11.28–30) invites us to yoke ourselves with Jesus, to walk with him, work with him and, ultimately, die with him. It is not something we can do by our own efforts. Sometimes we need to be reminded that we are but mortal — but with what a destiny!

At your bidding, Lord,
we are preparing the way for Christ, your Son.
May we not grow faint on the journey
as we wait for his healing presence.
Through our Lord Jesus Christ, your Son,
who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever.

Note
This Advent I am deliberately using the daily Mass readings as the basis for my blog posts. If you would like to know more about Advent itself, see our main website here.

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Benedict, Beowulf and the Voice in the Wilderness

The famous opening ‘Hwaet’ of Beowulf and the ‘Obsculta’ of the Rule of St Benedict have much in common, if Dr George Walkden is to be believed (see http://ind.pn/18jQ2AE). Both were drawing attention to what they had to say, but not in an aggressive ‘Oi, you’ fashion, but rather in a dignified, measured manner, equally suited to poetry and religion. I think Isaiah is doing something of the same in the lyrical passage we read today (Isaiah 40.1-11).

When we are most deeply moved, we don’t use exclamation marks (known to printers as ‘shrieks’, with good reason). We are quieter, more thoughtful, often overwhelmed by the import of what we are thinking or feeling. The voice crying in the wilderness is simultaneously the voice of God and the voice of his disciple, the prophet. It is John the Baptist preparing us for the coming of the Word; and when the Word has been spoken, there is no need of further speech.

This would be a good day to read quietly through those lines of Isaiah and allow them to sink into us. In silence we await the Word.

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