SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT (December 9, 2018)
John the baptizer enters the readings on the Second Sunday in Advent. John’s baptism was not a “sacrament” as was ours but is key to our understanding of being born again. The water of baptism is connected to two theories. In one, the water “washes away” our sins. In the second, the water represents the water of the womb. We, as it were, are re-submerged, die to our past life, and emerge into a new life. This is rooted in John’s Gospel: “How can a man be born again once he is old?” retorted Nicodemus. “Can he return to his mother’s womb and be born over again?” Jesus replied: “I solemnly assure you, no one can enter into God’s kingdom without being begotten of water and spirit.”
Neither the washing nor the drowning explanation of baptism deals with the inner process that is involved in the change of heart. John Shea, the well-known theologian and storyteller, offers a deeper explanation, and I want to share his wonderful thoughts with you.
John the baptizer saw himself in the role of a road builder. He wanted to take crooked sections and make them straight, fill in the low parts, the valleys, remove the peaks of the hills and mountains. What does that mean? He wanted to clear the way for the Lord to approach us.
The word “metanoia” is already a familiar, Greek word to us. Metanoia means, as we know, “beyond or beneath the mind.” Metanoia, going beyond or beneath the mind, indicates that our part is to get out of what AA would call “stinking thinking.” What is the thinking involved? The thinking is our experience “of our mind. We like to think that we are in control of it, but we well know from experience how distracted we can be when we try to concentrate. It is so annoying, so often!
Part of the material for our mind-distracting experience is having been sinned-against, from back in the day when we were very young and introduced to sin. In the beginning, we were innocent, a clean slate; then, some hit us, or were mean to us, were sarcastic to us, cheated. We learned to protect ourselves. We were, perhaps, even told, “to hit back.” We quickly learned to have a payback for a mean-spirited remark. Perhaps, we cheated, so that some cheater did not get ahead of us dishonestly in class. With the passing of the years, many came to see that cycle as part of their identity. “Stinking thinking.” They think that is really who they are.
An attitude of being offended and offending back is one we may have tenaciously held on to. It may be one that we project on God. That is where the word “metanoia” comes in. This way of thinking is a huge obstacle to our lord’s approaching us. We well know that we have been wronged – and we also know that we have done wrong. We may see Jesus not as “he who is to come” into our lives, but, as the one whom my sin keeps away. Like Peter, we may say, almost unconsciously, “Go away from me, lord, for I am a sinful man.”
If we recognize that that is the way that our mind works, we are well on the way to wholeness, to healing. It is a big part of what we call “the human condition.” We have a real metanoia; we can move beyond this wrong-headed thinking and focus on the unconditional forgiveness God offers each of us. When we are able to break through our mindset, forgiveness follows. Let’s look at this statement more closely.
God’s forgiveness opens our hearts to see that the mind, clinging to the vicious cycle of “being offended – offend” is broken by the assimilation of the fact of God’s unconditional forgiveness. We also finally understand why Jesus insists so strongly on “not hitting back,” but letting go of an offense. I recall the words of Dan Berrigan one day in class when he spoke of being hit – and not hitting back, but of absorbing the violence. If we absorb the violence, the violence ceases right then and there. If we hit back, we double that violence in the world. It took me years to appreciate that.
It helps me understand how the “prostitutes and sinners” were so readily accepted by and accepting of Jesus; their wrongdoing was not so deeply embedded in their hearts; it was right out there for all to see.
In appreciating our metanoia, we are enabled to hear and appreciate words like the words that Jesus heard: “You are my beloved child.” It gives us the courage to pray with early Christians that advent mantra: “Come, Lord, Jesus.”