As I live, says the Lord, I swear I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked man, but rather in the wicked man’s conversion, that he may live. Turn, turn from your evil ways! Why should you die, O house of Israel? -Ezekiel 33:11
So submit yourselves to God. Resist the devil, and he will flee from you. Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you. Cleanse your hands, you sinners, and purify your hearts, you of two minds. -James 4:7-8
These verses might feel a little more Lent than Advent, but it’s a new (liturgical) year and many of us are in powerful need of a fresh start. Maybe 2016 was so busy you got out of the habit of going to Sunday Mass. Maybe you made a political candidate your messiah and it’s time to remember who God is. Maybe your convictions overshadowed your compassion and you’ve been speaking with rage instead of love. Maybe you just got tired and all that’s holy fell by the wayside.
It’s a new day, friends, and a new year. It’s time to pick yourself up and start again.
Through the prophet Ezekiel, God is begging you to return to him. This is why God calls us to conversion: because he loves us and longs to save us. The rules aren’t there to torture us but to preserve us from pain in this world and agony in the next.
Many of us have somehow gotten the impression that God is a rather crotchety old man who takes a sinister pleasure in rebuking us, a sort of omnipotent Scrooge. But this passage belies that image, as does the message of the Gospel. God isn’t cackling when we sin but kneeling before us begging us to repent.
With the close of the Year of Mercy last week, it’s easy to go back to business as usual. The point of the Year of Mercy wasn’t a year off from consequences, though, but a year when we returned to the heart of the message: the desperate love of God that destroys all sin and sorrow. There really wasn’t much about this year that was any different from what the Church has been doing for 2,000 years: crying out the merciful love of God to a world in terrible need. This year wasn’t a new message but a megaphone for the old.
And just because the jubilee is over doesn’t mean that 2017 won’t also be a year of mercy. Every year is shot through with the longing of the Father to bring us back to himself. The question is whether we’re willing to come.
I’ve always been struck by James’ promise that if we draw near to God he will draw near to us, this Hound of Heaven who dogs our every step, this scorned lover always begging to be taken back, this crucified God who was lifted up that he might draw all men to himself. Sometimes—particularly when we’re running from him—it seems that he’ll never leave us alone. But for all he pursues us, he gives us space. He won’t force us to love him; he’ll just beg us. And when we finally turn to him, for the first or the fiftieth time, and offer him our battered hearts, he pulls us closer than ever before.
But we have to submit to God and resist the Devil. We have to turn from evil, cleanse our hands, and purify our hearts. God wants nothing more than to draw near to us, but we have to welcome him.
Advent is a season of welcome, a season of making room. Over the next four weeks, we work to empty our lives of sin and noise so that we can encounter the God who speaks in silence. As the world gears up with lights and noise and shopping and demands, we step back to contemplate a God made newborn. We turn from the daily frivolities that have dominated our lives over the last months and light candles in darkened rooms, chanting and praying and sitting in silence.
Advent isn’t sackcloth and ashes and anguished cries of repentance as much as it is a surrender to the quiet, incessant call of an infant God who begs you to leave behind the emptiness and make room for him to fill you. It’s a new year and a new chance to let go of our false gods and cling to the only one who satisfies. Let us begin.