Advent is an invitation to repent amidst a world of horrors.
Why do you let us wander, O LORD, from your ways,
and harden our hearts so that we fear you not?
Return for the sake of your servants,
the tribes of your heritage.
Oh, that you would rend the heavens and come down,
with the mountains quaking before you,
while you wrought awesome deeds we could not hope for,
such as they had not heard of from of old.
I was sitting comfortably in the pew last Sunday. The kids had offered me the rare gift of being able to be next to my husband, rather than sandwiched between two squirming boys, with a third one heavy on my lap. Behavior was good, morale was high, and everyone had matching shoes.
It was pretty much the pinnacle of a pleasant Mass experience.
But then the lector started on the first reading, Isaiah 63:16-17, and I was immediately taken back to a morning two years ago, the unexpectedly comfortable pew replaced with my reliably comfortable living room. There was snow on the ground, a fire was burning, and my children were at my knee, working on fractions and short essay questions and map puzzles. Christmas was on their minds, though, and we all took long breaks from our work to stare contentedly at the snow.
I don’t remember how I first heard it. Was I idly checking the news headlines on my phone? Had I gotten an email from a friend? I can’t remember. But I do know that suddenly I was aware of horror and chaos spinning out of control in an elementary school 50 miles south of me. As the day wore on, and the name Sandy Hook would be branded into the hearts of people across the country, I remember my heart calling out to God, begging Him to come back. Begging Him to tear the skies open and return. Begging Him to get it over and just judge us already, so we could stop committing such unspeakable crimes.
Maybe you’ve felt this way at some point, too. Maybe your heart has reached the breaking point somewhere, faced with one unspeakable crime too many, and you’ve called out to God, begging Him to come back and stop us—condemn us all to Hell, blot us out of existence, whatever, just stop us from doing these things over and over again. Maybe you were in your comfortable pew on Sunday, and your heart heard the cries of in Isaiah, and the sounds were immediately recognized.
Advent has started, and with it, the invitation to repent. The invitation to see what Isaiah saw, that we are unclean people, and our good deeds are like polluted rags, spreading as much toxin as they’re trying to clean up. But, like I realized in a flash on Sunday, Holy Mother Church doesn’t want us to recognize these sins to isolate us. Community is of God; isolation is of the enemy. Instead, the Church wants us to understand that the cries for justice are ones that echo throughout salvation history. The Church wants us to understand that our cries to heaven join with all those who came before us, that we have brothers and sisters in the exiled Jews of Isaiah’s time, just as much as we have brothers and sisters in this contemporary vale of tears. Recognition of our sins is only helpful if it leads us to deeper communion with Christ. Recognizing that, in the words of Isaiah, “we have all withered like leaves, and our guilt carries us away like the wind” is only useful if our guilt carries us closer to God.
This first week of Advent, I will remember this. I will remember not only my sins, or the sins of humanity as a whole, but I will remember the cry of Isaiah, of Israel, recorded some 150 years before the Incarnation, and know that my repentance and my search for Divine justice makes me part of a community that stretches back and back and back. I am not alone, and neither are you. We are part of the Brotherhood of the Broken, waiting to be made anew by God.
Yet, O LORD, you are our father;
we are the clay and you the potter:
we are all the work of your hands.