4th Sunday of Advent 2014
About a quarter century ago Bette Midler recorded a song by Julie Gold called “from a distance.” The idea behind the lengthy lyrics is that if you get far enough away from planet earth, it all looks green and blue and serene. You can’t see at that distance the interpersonal conflicts and internecine battles that closer up are visible and become headline news. And it goes on to say that “God is watching us from a distance.” The lyrics are hopeful and schmaltzy and, from God’s true perspective– total malarkey.
Today’s Gospel tells the truth. God is watching, alright, but that is not all God is doing. St. Luke pinpoints almost the day and the hour the promise began its fulfillment out in the open. It was in the year 29 AD, which was the fifteenth year of Emperor Tiberius, stepson of Caesar Augustus. At the death of the tyrant King Herod, shortly after the birth of Jesus, his kingdom had been split up by the Romans into four territories, or tetrarchs. The Romans had made Judea into a province soon afterwards, and the tyrant Pontius Pilate was its procurator. Herod Antipas, another bloody tyrant not quite as bad as his father, ruled Galilee. Luke also mentions two other politicians for the rest of the Levant. But those were only historical signposts. The critical information has to do with God’s rule, God’s plan, and God’s leaders. “The word of God came to Jochanon bar Zechariah in the wilderness,” the place where Moses had encountered the Lord in a burning bush, and where he had later received Torah from the hand of God. It was the place where Elijah would hear the Word of God in a still, small voice, and even later, where Jesus Himself would spend forty days preparing for the greatest three years, and the most momentous Holy Week in the history of the world.
We know him as John the Baptist, because he brought a baptism, a soaking, in repentance and forgiveness of sins. We also know that he did not only hear the Word of God. He spoke the Word he heard, and did so without mincing words. In the next sentence he tells his listeners: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8 Bear fruits that befit repentance, and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 9 Even now the axe is laid to the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” Repent and bear good fruit, the fruit of repentance. Your DNA will not save you, nor will the fact that you are the fortieth in a line of Catholic ancestors. Repent, believe, and bear fruit.
What does that mean, on a practical level, for us close to two thousand years later. The key is the phrase “forgiveness of sins.” At John’s circumcision–which is now our baptism–his father Zechariah Cohen had prophesied that he would give knowledge of salvation through forgiveness of sins. So, hopefully, we have all made a good and thorough confession of our mortal sins, and even some venial ones that plague us, before today, in preparation for Christmas. But there’s another aspect to that phrase, “forgiveness of sins,” that we tend to forget at our peril.
Let me venture to guess that, if you have more than fifteen or twenty Christmases in your sleigh bag, there’s at least one of them that hides an unhappy memory. I don’t mean the one when you were eight and Santa didn’t bring you that high-priced toy. I mean the one when you had made a special gift for your favorite uncle and he showed up intoxicated and thoughtlessly threw it out with the wrapping paper. I mean the one when one of your parents bawled you out for something you didn’t do, or for no reason at all. I mean the one when your spouse was emotionally withdrawn, or yelled at the kids, or was on extended tour and left you feeling alone and abandoned. It’s not the lack of stuff that hurts us at Christmas. No, it’s any lack of love. Now, twenty or thirty years or more later, you smell a particular Christmas spice, or hear a special carol, and the hurt returns, and the wound in your heart reopens.
Today’s Introit chants “let the heavens open and germinate the Savior.” There is grace to heal that wound, but there is, first of all, grace that you need to do something that makes the healing possible. Let’s recall the first Posada. I mean the one without music and tamales and bunuelos. The very pregnant young woman and her husband had been turned away from every inn because they were overbooked for the Roman census. She felt contractions and knew her time had come. What did Mary and Joseph have to do before finding the hole in the ground sheep sanctuary we now commemorate as the birthplace of Christ? What grace did they need? It was the grace of forgiveness. They had to forgive everyone who had put them in that impossible condition, from the Emperor on his throne to the last innkeeper and surly doorman. Because they could not act to reveal the Messiah to the world, the source of all forgiveness and healing grace, until they had given forgiveness themselves.
And that, I suggest, is the grace available to each of us at this Mass and during this week of preparation for Christmas. It is the grace of Mary and Joseph in the stable, giving birth in inhumane conditions and laying Jesus in a feed box. It is the grace of Mary and Joseph fleeing Bethlehem in the middle of the night and running away to a foreign country. It is the grace of Mary at the foot of the cross. As God forgives sinful humanity, so Mary and Joseph and Jesus forgave all who injured them–Herod and Augustus and Pilate and Caiaphas and all the rest, including you and me. No, you think you can’t forgive uncle Beto or your spouse or the guy who mugged you thirty years ago. You probably don’t have the strength. But Jesus can, and does, and if you place your hand in His pierced hands He’ll forgive them and in Him you will as well.
This is the God we call Emmanuel, this God-man who is God-with-us. This is the redeemer who comes down from heaven and also springs up from the earth, this Jesus, the Word of God whose name means “God saves.” God doesn’t look on us from a distance. He’s not out beyond Alpha Centauri in some distant constellation. No, the Son of God is us. He is not only with us. As the Fathers say, in Christ God is closer to us than we are to ourselves. Look to Him this week for the grace to forgive, the grace to give thanks even for those who have or will hurt us. He has promised to give it, and He will give it.