In all three years of the lectionary, the first Sunday of Advent puts us in an eschatological key with its call to “watch, for you know not the hour.” Only on the fourth and final Sunday do we turn to the Annunciation, and the immediate preparation for Christmas.
But the second and third Sundays give us John the Baptist as the key figure preparing us for Christ. Week Three will gives us various other aspects of John, but in all three years, week two is the “voice crying out in the wilderness.”
John says, “prepare the way of the Lord.” But that way is repentance. This is key to understanding who Jesus is.
John distinguishes between his baptism and Jesus’s: “I have baptized you with water; he will baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” But alongside that difference is a similarity; indeed, in order to understand what the baptism with the Holy Spirit means, we need to understand the symbolism of John’s baptism, without the Holy Spirit.
The people “were going out to him and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River as they acknowledged their sins.” John’s baptism did not confer grace; it did not give the Holy Spirit; it did not wash away original sin. What it did was acknowledge sin. The people acknowledged they needed a new beginning. We cannot understand the grace of sacramental baptism until we understand the symbolism of repentance in John’s non-sacramental baptism.
John was “proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins.” His message – and his baptism – was a call to repentance: metanoia, a change of heart.
This might sound strange, but “forgiveness” is one of my least favorite words in the English Bibles. The word in Greek (and in Latin) is much more active: it’s not just that God “overlooks” our sins – I think that’s what “forgiveness” means to most English-speakers. The Greek word is he “sends them away.”
It’s not just that we say, “I’m sorry,” and God says, “oh, it doesn’t matter.” Rather, we say “God, I don’t want to be that way anymore” – repentance! metanoia! – and God gives us the grace to change.
The true theological meaning of “mercy” is not that God overlooks our sins – he loves us far too much to just “overlook” anything about us. Mercy means he helps us: helps us to escape from sin. Grace does not “cover” our sins, it heals us.
Because this is about repentance. That’s why John is important: John can’t cause God to overlook their sins. To the contrary, John tells them that their sin – and their repentance – matters. He calls them to repent.
And this call to repentance, like the cry of conscience, is itself already a divine gift. “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way.” It is God who sends us this prick of conscience, and we thank him for the new beginning.
Our first reading is the passage from Isaiah that John is quoting. It is lovely – because conversion is lovely – but it is also brutal.
“Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.” But what is the comfort? “Her guilt is expiated.” What does that mean? “Indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins.”
Isaiah is speaking to a Jerusalem destroyed for her sins. His comfort is that this penance is sufficient. He is not saying, “oh, don’t worry, sin doesn’t matter.” He is saying, “thank God, you have finally repented.”
So too, when he says, “Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low,” this is beautiful, because conversion is beautiful – but it is a call to repentance, a little scary, if we don’t also see its beauty. Every valley in your soul, and in the soul of your community: everything that is not right must be set right, before the approach of the King. Repent!
Our reading from Second Peter explains this all by putting us back into an apocalyptic key. God is coming! When? Not yet: “he is patient with you . . . that all should come to repentance.” He delays because we are not yet holy.
Again, the reading gets scary: when the Lord comes, “the elements will be dissolved by fire, and the earth and everything done on it will be found out.” Dies irae!
But the deeper point is not destruction, but rebuilding: “we await new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells.”
We await the kingdom of God, and the King of righteousness. How do we prepare for the coming of Christ? By embracing that kingdom – by embracing his righteousness. Repent!
What valleys and mountains impede the coming of Christ into your heart this Advent?