Tired of failing, again and again? Let God start over for you.
A Homily for the Second Sunday of Advent
Starting over is not so hard. But starting over, all over again, is.
The first time you begin again, you do so with some confidence that having learned from your mistakes, you will get it right the second time. This is true whether we are talking about love or a golf swing. But once you fail again, you begin to question yourself rather than your goal. Maybe this is more than you can master. You certainly do not enter your third or subsequent attempts with your initial confidence. It has expired.
That is one of the saddest things to hear in the confessional: souls saying that they are discouraged with themselves. Ashamed even, that they should be back again, confessing to the same sin.
Shame is never of God. Healthy guilt, a recognition that one has done wrong, yes; but shame, no! That is what is so distressing, someone ashamed of themselves. The claws of the Evil One have sunk deep into the soul. I want to say: “But at least you are here. At least you know the sin, and you are humbly confessing it. Think of those who do the same without knowledge or regret.” But confession is not the time to consider the sins of others but only one’s own.
St. Mark, however, has words of comfort for those who sit in the shadows of shame. He opens his Gospel with words of consolation, though the problem with Scripture is that, having heard it before, we think that we have already heard it. Listen again.
Look at the opening noun of the Gospel, “the beginning” (Ἀρχὴ). Mark gets us, the cowered and the cynical. He knows this is not the first beginning, which is why he immediately explicates our cause for hope:
The beginning of the gospel of Jesus Christ the Son of God (1:1).
The “evangelist” coopts a secular term “good news” (εὐαγγέλιον). It would have been as familiar to his audience as our “breaking news.” And like the latter phrase, he knows that it has been oversold, which is why he immediately adds—even at the risk of undoing his authorial strategy—of Jesus Christ, the Son of God (Ἰησοῦ Χριστοῦ Υἱοῦ Θεοῦ). You see, this time we are not the ones who are starting over. God is beginning again.
Mark says that he is quoting the Prophet Isaiah. True enough, but if you examine the citation, you will see that the Book of Exodus and the Prophet Malachi are also in the mix.
We tend not to listen or to understand until we have given up on ourselves, until we no longer want to start again, all over again. It is then that we are finally ready for God to begin again.
Mark quotes Isaiah’s 40th chapter, our first reading. God sees our stagnation. God knows that we are held captive. That is why God himself will lead us into freedom. But “Behold, I am sending my messenger ahead of you; he will prepare your way” is not Isaiah. It is Malachi.
Mark makes use of Malachi to bring in a note of judgment, which, for the righteous, is not bad news; it is the beginning of restoration.
Now I am sending my messenger—
he will prepare the way before me;
And the lord whom you seek will come suddenly to his temple;
The messenger of the covenant whom you desire—
see, he is coming! says the Lord of hosts.
But who can endure the day of his coming?
Who can stand firm when he appears?
For he will be like a refiner’s fire,
like fullers’ lye (Mal 3:1-2).
Here is an irony that suffuses the life of every believer. We keep saying that we want God to act, but do we really? Are we prepared for that? Fire and lye purify, but they do not do so gently.
But even here, Mark couples challenge with comfort. He presents the Baptist as God’s angel, subtly calling to mind the one who led the Israelites from the slavery of Egypt. “Angel” means “messenger.” In more closely following the Greek in which he would have read Exodus rather than what he read in Malachi, Mark wants us to remember the angel, a pillar of fire in the night, who walked the Israelites through the darkness, from slavery to freedom.
To be honest, as “angels” go, the Baptist does not look like much. Unkempt and rustic, he hardly seems a match for the world he addresses. But that is St. Mark’s point. That is always the Gospel point. It is God who is starting over. There is no need to rely on worldly wiles.
Who is someone “clothed in camel’s hair, with a leather belt around his waist?” (Mk 1:6). What is a host raised above an altar? “I absolve you of your sins”—what do these words, spoken so confidently in confession, really mean? The more a faith sounds too hard to believe, the worthier it is of belief. Faith should give reason a run.
And there’s God’s irony. We tend not to listen or to understand until we have given up on ourselves, until we no longer want to start again, all over again. It is then that we are finally ready for God to begin again. And God will act in an utterly new way. But we will know—of course, we will know—who has acted on our behalf for the comfort of God brooks no competitor.