2nd Sunday of Advent, Year B
Text: Isaiah 55:6-9; Philippians 1:20-24, 27; Matthew 20:1-16.
For about a dozen years, I’ve been practicing a martial art called aikido. It’s mainly derived from a form of jujutsu, the body of unarmed fighting technique originally used by the Japanese noble classes for battle, but integrates it with a spiritual understanding of the value of all people, even one’s attacker. I’m no master of the art, and don’t propose to teach it here, but in the course of studying it, I’ve learned something that relates very closely to these readings for me.
When I practice, I make mistakes--lots of mistakes. In fact, as I’ve progressed, I’ve become more and more aware of how many mistakes I’m making! It can be disheartening, especially because even small flaws are often sufficient to cause a technique to fail. A natural reaction is to try harder, and harder, and harder, but the tension of struggling so hard freezes the muscles and nerves, making success impossible. The fear of making a mistake and botching a technique becomes paralyzing, and the frustration is so great that some people quit the art entirely when they encounter this.
The only way I know of to stop this spiral of self-recrimination and forced tension sounds simple: let go. The lesson of why something didn’t work is valuable, but I have to integrate it with everything else, not focus on that one thing exclusively. With time and more practice, I become able to catch the error before it happens and adjust to correct it, just as I do with the hundreds of other errors that I’ve made and learned from before. Better technique evolves naturally from improving self-awareness and continued effort--we speak of "practicing clean," of not carrying into a technique the tensions from before, whether from practice or from other parts of life.
It seems to me that punishment and retribution are often paralyzing, like the self-critical attitude I can still sometimes fall into in practicing aikido. I certainly have to examine my actions to know what I’m doing and what effect it is having, and discern what is good and bad in it; that’s essential to any kind of self-improvement. I shouldn’t, however, dwell on the past, berating myself for faults or congratulating myself on successes to the detriment of continuing to work, in aikido practice or in other parts of life.
After the Israelites have endured a long period of exile, God directs Isaiah to comfort God’s people, and to tell them that their sins are forgiven, that the debt is paid.1 John the Baptist, on the other hand, proclaims a baptism of repentance2--a way to forgiveness and love that does not demand payment of the debt, but a new heart, symbolized by the death and rebirth in baptism’s waters. The ancient Israelites related very differently to God than we do, in an alternation of retribution and forgiveness; Jesus, as prefigured here by John, shows us a new way that replaces retribution with conversion.
If I recognize my sins, and then take what I have learned and continue to do my best, which will hopefully be better than before, it’s not because I take my sin lightly. It’s because I believe that God has work for me to do, and I should be up and at it. "Go, and don’t sin any more"3 is Jesus’ answer to sin. John’s baptism is a sign of that washing away of sins that frees us to move on: conversion, even a human, imperfect conversion, is forward-looking.
Letting go is an act of radical humility. If I trust God to forgive, what business do I have retaining the sin? Judas betrayed Jesus, and Peter denied him three times. Both sinned, both were ashamed, both wept, but Peter accepted God’s forgiveness and moved on to become the driving force of the early church, while Judas wallowed in his misery and hanged himself in despair. We are always called back to our conversion, as we hear in the second reading: "[God] is patient with you, not wanting any to perish, but all to come to repentance."5
The peace in which we are called to live isn’t a frozen stasis; it is an active life of proclamation in word and deed, as Isaiah tells us to "Go up on a high mountain ... and lift up [our voices] with strength."6 Action always carries risk, and we are sure to stumble; still, we can accept the hand that Jesus, through the Holy Spirit, extends to us to help us rise again and continue to work. In the new heavens and the new earth,7 our past sins will be of no account, washed away by God’s boundless, generous love.
1: Isaiah 40:1-2
2: Mark 1:4
3: John 8:11
4: Cf. John 20:23
5: 2 Peter 3:9
6: Isaiah 40:9
7: 2 Peter 3:13