Rethinking Repentance

2nd Sunday of Advent | Luke 3:1-6

You might remember that one of the earliest trips that Pope Francis took after becoming Pope was to Lampedusa. There, he gave a powerful message about the need to care for migrants. Although what Pope Francis said was important, the context in which he said it was arguably more significant. First, he gave his talk in the midst of the migration crisis in which thousands were dying trying to cross the Mediterranean Sea and enter Europe. We should remember that these deaths continue. In 2018, over 2000 people died trying to cross the Mediterranean. Second, the place where he gave his talk was highly significant. Lampedusa, an island in the Mediterranean, is often the first stop for migrants. It is a place where many wait to enter Europe. The context in which Pope Francis gave his speech was as important as what he said. Today in the Gospel (Luke 3:1-6), the mission of John the Baptist in introduced: “he preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins” (v. 3). As was the case of Pope Francis in Lampedusa, the context in which John preached this repentance is highly significant and helps us better comprehend his message. In particular, the gospel helps us rethink the meaning of repentance.

Domenico Ghirlandaio [Public domain]
First of all, Luke carefully sets the scene of John’s preaching in order to impress upon us that the message of John the Baptist is of universal significance. In the very beginning of the Gospel (vv. 1-2), Luke give a list of the leaders, both secular and religious, who are active when John begins his preaching. With this list, Luke makes it clear that John’s message will be universal in two main ways. First, John’s message is meant to have universal significance in the geographic sense of the word. In addition to mentioning the local political leaders (Herod and Philip), Luke mentions the Caesar (Tiberius), the ruler of Roman Empire and, in a certain sense, of the entire world. John’s message is meant to affect people all over the world. Second, in mentioning the religious leaders of the time (Annas and Caiaphas), Luke makes it clear that John’s message will be universal in the sense that it will affect all realms of life whether is be religious, political or social. By listing these rulers, Luke is sending a simple message: what John the Baptist has to say is meant to apply to all people and it is meant to impact all areas of their lives.

Within this universal context, the message of repentance that John proclaims is supposed to apply not only to the moral lives of individuals, but also to the social and political institutions of the time. In calling for repentance, John says that the status quo of both people’s personal lives as well as the socio-political order is wanting. In both areas they are called to cling closer to what God wants. This is an important message for us as we can tend to compartmentalize our faith life, making it quite individualistic. When we talk about repentance, we can focus merely on reforming our personal failings. Repentance means stopping to lie, cheat, use bad language etc. This kind of repentance is of course necessary. It is not, however, enough. John’s preaching is meant to have a universal impact that affects all realms of life. Repentance, therefore, also means changing political and social structures in order to make them more just. The Church has always been clear on this point and has a rich tradition of social teaching. In addition to the Catechism of the Catholic Church, we also have a Compendium of Social Doctrine of the Church. Although most Catholics have probably heard of, and perhaps own, the first document, I suspect that fewer are aware of, or have even seen, the second document. This is a problem. Because of the context in which Luke places John’s mission, his message of repentance should be understood as calling for change in the social and political order as well as in the personal morality of individuals.

More than this, the context in which Luke places John’s preaching helps us understand that the repentance that John calls for is closely connected to liberation. With his citation of Isaiah 40:3-5 in vv. 4-6, Luke explains that what John the Baptist is now doing is just like what the prophet Isaiah did. The passage that Luke quotes from Isaiah was uttered in the Exile in Babylon. At this time, the ruling class of Israel had been deported to Babylon after the Babylonian empire had utterly destroyed Jerusalem in 586 BC. The people to whom Isaiah (more specifically Deutero-Isaiah here) spoke in Exile were dejected and losing hope that they would ever return back to their land. Isaiah’s message was one of hope. He predicted that God would soon free them from Babylon. He preached that this act of liberation would be a kind of second Exodus. Just as God freed the people from slavery in Egypt, so he would liberate them now from Babylon. Isaiah tried to prepare the people for this great act of salvation. In like manner, John the Baptist’s call to repentance was preparation for and connected to the new act of liberation that God would work through Jesus. Jesus mission is a new Exodus and a new return of Exile. John the Baptist is preparing people for a new act of liberation.

As the Pope illustrated in Lampedusa, the context in which someone says something is as important as what that person says. In the Gospel today, Luke puts the preaching of John the Baptist in its proper context in order to better understand what what kind of repentance we are called to. In this way, the Gospel challenges us to broaden our idea of what repentance is. Repentance is not merely individualistic. Repentance is not something that applies to us when we are in Church or doing “Catholic stuff”. Quite simply, repentance is meant to liberate all people in all areas of life. Repentance applies to how we prayer and how often we go to Church as well as how we vote in local elections and what we think the minimum wage should be. On this second week of Advent, we are reminded that what Jesus does for us is meant to affect everything.

Advent: Preparing for Jesus' Three Arrivals

1st Sunday of Advent, year C | Lk 21:25-28, 34-36

Most Wednesday mornings in Rome the Pope gives an audience in St. Peter’s square. It is a highly anticipated event! People line up hours before access to the square is even possible in the hopes of securing a good seat. After they are seated, people wait in expectation for the Pope to appear on the raised platform at the head of the square. As they wait, the expectation of the people is palpable. They cannot wait for the Pope to arrive. Would you wait with this kind of expectation to meet the Pope? I certainly would! Now, consider this. Call to mind the great expectation of those people waiting to meet the Pope. Now, ask yourself, “am I waiting with the same attention and and excitement to meet Jesus?”
The Gospel today speaks to us about the need to be ready to meet Jesus. At the start of the Gospel, Jesus uses apocalyptic, symbolic language in order to describe his future coming. Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man, an enigmatic saviour-type figure that is described in the book of Daniel (c. 7). Jesus’ description of his coming is meant to evoke wonder and impress upon us the great importance of his coming. After his arrival, nothing will ever be the same again. Jesus predicts that some will respond to his coming with fear. For those who are ready and waiting for Jesus, however, their response will be quite different. They will hold their heads high. Jesus’ coming will be a moment of joy because he is their saviour. What is important, Jesus says, is that we are ready to meet him. We need to pray and stay sober and alert. We do not know when Jesus will come, but we want to be among those who meet Jesus with heads held high. We want to be ready to meet Jesus with joy.

The season of Advent, which we start this Sunday, reminds us that there are different ways that Jesus comes into the world. The words Advent comes from the Latin adventus and means “coming” or “arrival”. In one of his homilies, St. Bernard of Clairvaux says that there are three “arrivals” or “comings” of Jesus that Advent is meant to call our attention to. The first coming of Jesus was when he was born in Bethlehem. The third coming of Jesus is when he will come again at the end of time, bringing to completion his work of salvation and creating a new heaven and a new earth (Rev 21). This is the coming of Jesus that the Gospel describes. The second and intermediate arrival - or more accurately arrivals - of Jesus is between this first and third coming. This second coming of Jesus is all the different ways that Jesus enters our life here and now: 1) in our hearts in prayer; 2) in the sacraments; and 3) in those who suffer and are in need (Matthew 25).

Advent is a time to train ourselves to be attentive to the different ways Jesus comes into our life. Some of you have probably watched the show “Undercover Boss”. In this show, a high-level executive leaves the comfort of his or her cushy office, puts on a disguise and goes to work in a low-level job. There, the executive tries to learn what things are really like in the company and what the rank and file think of him or her. Usually, the rest of the employees do not recognize their undercover boss. Jesus often comes into our lives as an undercover boss. Often we can miss him because the disguise that he wears is not what we expect. Perhaps we expect that Jesus will come in a glorious, wonderful and pleasing disguise. In describing her experience of working with the poor, Mother Teresa would often remark that Jesus is present in the poor in a “distressing disguise”. In the poor and suffering, Mother Teresa was able to see Jesus. She understood that the love and service she showed them, she was also showing to Jesus. Jesus can come to us in various distressing disguises: a coworker who is arrogant and difficult to get along with; the poor person we meet who asks us for some change; an acquaintance who constantly asks for one favour or another;  a family member or friend who is struggling with an addiction. Jesus often meets us in a distressing disguise. In showing patience, kindness and care to these individuals, we show love to Jesus.

As we start the season of Advent today, we prepare ourselves to welcome Jesus. Not only do we want to get ready for Christmas, but we also want to become more attentive and capable of welcoming Jesus in the various ways that he comes into our life each and every day. Can you think of one individual in your life who may be Jesus in a distressing disguise?

An apocalypse of hope

33rd Sunday of Ordinary Time, Year B | Daniel 12:1-3; Mark 13:24-32

I really like to watch “apocalyptic” movies (e.g. Mad Max, the Matrix, World War Z, Snowpiercer etc.). These movies describe a not too distant future in which the world as we know it has been destroyed by some plague, cataclysmic war, environmental destruction or zombie uprising . Although these movies often show a small group of people battling for survival in their new reality, overall these movies are rather grim and fear-inducing. Perhaps I need to reflect on why I like them so much! In the Bible, we find a significant number of apocalyptic texts. The first reading and Gospel today are two examples. Although these apocalyptic texts share some similarities with the movies I have mentioned, there are important differences with respect to 1) who is the main audience of the texts and 2) the emotional response that the works are meant to evoke.

Significantly, apocalyptic texts in the Bible are intended to inspire downtrodden people with a sense of hope. The purpose of apocalyptic movies seem to be quite different. These movies are aimed at a society that is relatively comfortable. The stories are meant to be cautionary tales or inspire fear by pointing out what could happen if suddenly all the things we have are taken away. The first reading today was from the book of Daniel. This text was written in response to persecution of the Jewish people by the Greek King Antiochus IV around the year 165 BC. At this time, Antiochus IV tried to impose Greek culture and religion upon the Jews. He forbade circumcision and Jewish worship. Many Jews were violently persecuted and killed. The book of Daniel was meant give hope to the suffering. Through the use of imaginative and figurative language, the text inspires readers to believe that God is in control. Texts describe battles in heaven which mirror the conflicts on earth. The first reading describes that Michael is a leader in these battles. Just as God triumphs in these heavenly battles, so will God ultimately liberate his people on earth. Elsewhere in the book of Daniel (e.g. chapter 7), an enigmatic figure called the Son of Man is presented. The Son of Man is described as coming on clouds. He receives the power from God - called the “Ancient of Days” - to conquer and rule on behalf of God’s people. The message that God will eventually triumph over all that oppresses his people is meant to fill the downtrodden with a sense of hope.
Coin depicting Antiochus IV
Similarly, the Gospel today is meant to inspire those who suffer with the truth that Jesus is in control and will ultimately save them from their tribulations. Like the book of Daniel, the Gospel of Mark was probably written for a community that was suffering persecution or a severe setback. In the portion of Mark we heard today, Jesus uses apocalyptic language. First, he paints a vision of the “times after the tribulation” in which the sun and moon are darkened and the heavens quake. This suggests an undoing of the creation of the sun and the moon that God accomplished on the fourth day of creation recounted in the first chapter of Genesis. The message here is that the current state of the world will come to an end. This does not refer merely to the end of the world, but also to the end of the suffering that the people are enduring now. God will overcome the circumstances that are pressing down on the people and create something better for them. This vindication will come through Jesus. In the Gospel, Jesus identifies himself as the Son of Man, the mysterious figure presented in Daniel. Jesus, like the Son of Man, will come on clouds. Since clouds are often associated in the Old Testament with manifestations of God (e.g. Exod 24:16), with this imagery, Jesus seems to be highlighting his own divinity. At the same time, just at the Son of Man received authority and a mission from the Ancient of Days in Daniel, so Jesus was sent by his Father to save humanity from their sorrow. Through the use of rich, biblical imagery, Jesus communicates a clear message. “I know you are suffering now but have hope! I am with you. The time is coming soon when I will overcome what is troubling you and create a new and better situation for you.”

Above all, this message from the Gospel should encourage us when we are in the midst of our own tribulations. Jesus’ apocalyptic language is meant to give hope. Jesus, the Son of Man, has been given power and authority over all things. He will tear down the situations that oppress us and create something new and better for us. He loves us and cares for us. Perhaps we are currently overcome with desolation or depression. The Gospel is an opportunity to remind ourselves that God will eventually bring some consolation into our life as He has done in the past. Maybe current events, whether in politics or within the Church, fill us with anxiety. Jesus’ words remind us that he is in control. He has the power to overcome discord and unjust structures. Perhaps you or someone you love is battling illness. The Gospel is a reminder that Jesus is close to you and that there is hope that he can bring healing. Finally, when we come face to face with the reality of death, Jesus words are meant to encourage. Even after death he creates for a new and better life.

Unlike apocalyptic movies which communicate fear, the apocalyptic language in the first reading and Gospel is meant to encourage us. What area is your life is causing you difficulty? Let us invite Jesus into our lives, confident that he can and will overcome our sufferings and bring about something better.