Anyone who has studied music knows the need for repetition. The days before a performance include countless attempts to give voice to the notes on the page. First attempts are fraught with errors in technique and interpretation. Only after many tries can a musician bring to life something that had, until then, existed only in the mind of a composer.
Return to me with all your heart (Jl 2:12)
In different ways, our readings this week describe a similar predicament for those who follow God. Isaiah’s prophecy begins with a dead stump sprouting new life. The stump is David’s kingdom, destroyed by Israel’s infidelity. The life that rises from it anew brings hope and a new set of rules. Animosity of predator and prey will cease, and God’s promises will be open even to gentiles. In his letter Paul applies this promise to his own day. That new shoot is Jesus Christ. Just as his fellow Jews find hope in him, just so must they bring that hope to the gentiles.
These themes come together in John the Baptist’s ministry. For him, repentance was total and irrevocable. This comes through in his preaching—“Repent! For the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”—and his exceptional lifestyle. The Greek word that Matthew uses for repentance is metanoia, which means to “change the mind.” This is not a shift of preference among choices, as the phrase means today, but is better understood as the reception of an entirely new mind.
Even small habits are difficult to break. A repentant smoker can find the first weeks of nonsmoking utterly excruciating. Even knowing this difficulty, Christian tradition teaches that we change our heart entirely to make room for Christ. This call to conversion is daunting, so much so that we might despair of our ability to fulfill it.
The readings today teach that total repentance is an achievable task, but it takes time. In his lifestyle and dress, John the Baptist resembles the prophet Elijah. Like Elijah, John works to bring Israel back to the Lord. Elijah called on Israel to turn away from false worship. By contrast, the Israel of John’s day had not abandoned God, but rather was abandoning hope in his promises. John called on them to turn away from weariness and return to the Lord.
This often takes more than one try. Implicit in today’s readings is the church’s awareness that repentance can take a long time. The Jordan river is a clue, as it plays a role several times in Israel’s repentance. Elijah parted the waters before his fiery ascension (2 Kgs 2:8-14). Israel passed through the Jordan on dry land when entering Canaan after 40 years in the desert. (Jos 3:13-17). John’s baptism presents both these narratives in a new light. Like musicians preparing for a recital, God’s people had to try again and again to enter their inheritance. In this light, John’s ministry was a fresh attempt at an ancient goal: to be ready when God fulfills his promise. John’s baptism addressed Israel’s false starts, symbolizing their willingness to try again.
The repentance of Advent is a call for transformation. We are like musicians at practice. Trying repeatedly to be ready, we can develop more than just the technical perfection the Pharisees and Sadducees sought. The struggle to “change our minds” can confer a brief glimpse into God’s mind, and that is when the transformation takes place. How many times did Isaiah have to repent of hate before he could imagine his conquerors joining him in the covenant? How many times did Paul have to repent of hardness of heart before he realized the scriptures foretold Christ and fellowship with the uncircumcised?
Following Paul’s counsel, we who have glimpsed God’s dream must now share that hope. Like John, we have to renew the hopes of an exhausted world. Like Elijah we have to turn the world away from its fascination with idols. With practice, however, we can be like Isaiah, who can see beyond the mess and dream of a world in which all are ready for the arrival of God.