Have you ever had the feeling that things were just not right? I don’t mean not right like you got the wrong order at Portillo’s, or your postal delivery person gave you the neighbor’s mail. I mean, really not right, in a fundamental sense, like the world was off its axis in some way. I think these days we’ve gotten a sense of that. We have those who would govern us telling us how extremely they are in support of abortion, you know, the murder of innocent children, right up until the time of their birth. And others who callously treat the poor with contempt, abandoning those in real need or fleeing for their safety. We have politicians and others acting like children in public and expecting everyone to enjoy it. Crimes of violence, in recent weeks, seem to be on the rise, again. The bad news never seems to stop.
And perhaps even a bit closer to home, we could all probably think of times in our lives when things just haven’t been right: times of transition, times dealing with the illness of a loved one, or family difficulty, times when we have been looking for new work or trying to discern a path in life. These are unsettling times that we all have to experience every now and then. And add to that our own sin, especially sin that bites at us time and time again, patterns of addiction, the sadness of past hurts, and so much more.
So in view of the craziness in our world, and the sadness that sometimes happens in our own life, it’s easy to get to feeling like things are just not right.
And God knows it isn’t right. He’s known that for a long time. The whole Old Testament is filled with God’s lament of how things went wrong, and his attempts to bring it back. The fourth Eucharistic Prayer sums it up by saying to God, “Again and again you offered a covenant to man, and through the prophets taught him to hope for salvation.” But, as we well know from our studies of the Scriptures and its proclamation in the Liturgy, again and again humankind turned away from the covenant and away from the God of our salvation. Ever since the fall, things just haven’t been right.
So what is it going to take for all of this to turn around? What is going to get things whipped back into shape? Albert Einstein once said that insanity is doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results. Nothing ever changes if nothing ever changes. Things don’t suddenly become right by continuing to do the wrong thing. I really think the only way things will ever change is by starting over. And that’s what I believe God is doing, in our time, throughout all time, and particularly in this Advent time.
Today’s first reading speaks of this new creation: a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse. It’s quite a visual, and when I think about it, I remember one of our staff telling me about her visit to the concentration camp at Auschwitz. She saw the horrible death chambers and holding cells. But she also noticed, that growing up through the cracks in the asphalt, were some beautiful little wild flowers. Her tour guide commented that that was nature’s way of healing what had gone on there. It was a new creation, breaking up through the horrible devastation of the murder and destruction that had reigned in that place. It was a shoot that sprouted from a very unlikely stump.
The bud that blossoms from God’s new creation is something completely different than what we would expect, something incredibly wonderful, something that would never be possible in the old order: “The wolf shall be a guest of the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid; the calf and the young lion shall browse together, with a little child to guide them.” None of those species would ever get along in the old creation; none of them would ever have been safe. But in the new creation, all of them will know the Lord, and that knowledge will have them not only get along, but even to flourish.
In today’s gospel reading, Saint John the Baptist proclaims the coming of Christ who will do things in a new way, too: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.” The all-consuming fire of the Holy Spirit will burn away all that is not right and heat up all that has been frozen in listless despair for far too long. That fire will force a division between what is old and just not right, and what is of the new creation: “He will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into his barn, but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
All of these are nice words, and the idea of a new creation is one for which I think we all inwardly yearn. But what does it really mean? What does it look like? How will we know that we are moving toward new creation and new life? Well, I think we’ll know because it will hurt a bit. Change involves dying to something and rising to something else. That’s why the Paschal Mystery – Christ’s death, resurrection, and ascension – is so important to us.
I remember going to the profession of final vows of one of my friends who became a Benedictine Monk. During the ritual, he laid prostrate on the floor while we sang the Litany of the Saints. I did that too, at my ordination. But different from what I did: they covered him with a funeral pall. It was a striking image: he was dying to his former life, the old world, the old order, and when it was over, he rose to new life: his life as a Benedictine, yes, but also his life of salvation and grace.
The death of that old nonsense always has to give way to the new life that God intends for us. We have to be a people marked by new attitudes, new grace, new love. We have to give up things that drag us down: unconfessed sin, habitual sin, impure relationships – all of it. We have to surrender these to God so that we can become new people. And then we have to strive for peace and justice – real peace and real justice available to everyone God has created. We have to be a community who worships God not just here in Church, but also out there in our daily lives: a community that insists on integrity, a community that genuinely cares for those who are sick, in need, or lost. We have to be a people who worship God first every Sunday and Holy Day of Obligation, who confess our sins with hope of God’s mercy, who give priority to prayer in the midst of our crazy lives.
Most of all, we have to be a people who are open to being re-created. If we are not willing to put to death our old stinkin’ selves and embrace new attitudes and ways of living, if we are not in fact willing to take up our crosses and follow Christ, then we are proving Einstein right: we are doing the same old thing and hoping for a different result. It doesn’t work that way. We have to cooperate with God’s new creation, we have to be eager to let God do something new. We have to be willing to live out of boxes for a while, so that the transition can take place. We have to have unwavering hope that giving ourselves to God’s re-creation will be worth it, if not immediately, then certainly in the long run. We have to truly believe our Psalmist’s song: “Justice will flower in his days, and profound peace, till the moon be no more.”