People have long memories; national anniversaries matter. Take, for example, 26 December, 1862; 28 June, 1914; and 6 January, 2021. At the end of the U.S.-Dakota War, thirty-eight Native Americans were hanged in Mancato, Minnesota, Many Native people in South Dakota remember that event; some make an annual pilgrimage to the site. The assassination of Archduke Ferdinand led to the slaughter of millions of people in two world wars, and to evils that still effect parts of Europe, the Middle East, and elsewhere. At the beginning of this year, a mob stormed the capitol in Washington, DC in an attempt to prevent the certification of the election of President Joe Biden. The fury about that event still haunts U.S. citizens. To borrow a literary trope, these events are not only not behind us; they are not even past.
Such dates are scarcely unique. There are so many individual, family, and national tales of terror every bit as traumatic, every bit in need of the healing that never seems to come. And the memory of the trauma gets handed on to the second, third, and fourth generations, who make it their own and, for good or ill, keep it alive in their minds and hearts.
Such events cannot be forgotten. There are important reasons why they should not be. The truth must always be told and acknowledged. Right must always be, and seen to be done.
Resentful hatred and revenge are something else again. That is why there is so much at stake in today’s Gospel. “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Tiberius Caesar, … when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judaea, … the word of the Lord came to John, the Son of Zechariah is the desert.” Once again, Saint Luke says, divine love has intervened in the long, tragic human story. It is necessary that we remember the coming of the mercy of God, whose ways are not ours, and that we welcome the Spirit, who has the power to gather all men and women together in a peace built on justice, and made permanent in reconciliation; and that love be answered with love.
That is easier said than done, naturally. Even speaking about the unspeakable makes a prophet of love vulnerable to the charge: “he jests at scars that never felt a wound.”
Even so, when we remember “the fifteenth year of … Tiberius Caesar” and the baptism of John that came from heaven, we might also recall the moment in a deserted place where thousands ate their fill of bread and fish and were satisfied. And when they ate, no one let hatred and resentment fester; no one plotted seventy-sevenfold vengeance. There was only the “before” of despair and the “after” of healing and new life.
And now, in Advent time, we are gathered for “the breaking of the bread.” Naturally, it is very hard to imagine a time when terror, and despair, and vengeance are behind us at last. Yet we hear of promises kept and a future kingdom, and we feast in love. We pray: “Father, … Your kingdom come…” Nor do we call the good news and our sacrificial banquet obscene illusions. For we learn that “nothing will be impossible for God.” We become what we receive. And we are sent from the feast to be servants of the word of Christ’s steadfast loving Heart, which fills the world and is never to pass away. We await the “blessed hope” of his coming after all.