Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; Indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins.
My mother liked to sing and she often sang lullabies as she nursed and comforted her babies. I'd like to think that anyone who enjoyed that privilege remembers the songs throughout their lives. They return to us as comfort in dark times.
Today's first reading could well be a lullaby. "Comfort give comfort to my people" can only be a reassuring song to children and adults alike.
But the infant would no more understand "her guilt is expiated" than I understood "and down will come baby, cradle and all."
As adults we turn back to these ancient words and soft memories and ask, "What guilt is expiated, what service is at an end?"
I am presently reading a new biography of Frederick Douglas, one of the greatest speakers of the 19th century, when oratory flourished in federal and state houses. In fact I have been reading a lot lately about the "original sin" of America: slavery/racism. In the past six months, without any particular plan, I've read autobiographical works of Booker T. Washington, James Weldon Johnson and W.E.B. Dubois, plus a biography of the Catholic editor from Kentucky, Daniel Rudd.
These stories are not ancient history; the disappointment and shame of racism remain as fresh as the sunrise. They are renewed each morning.
We may wonder what were our ancestors thinking as they imported slaves from Africa to the United States. Did they really think the two "races" could be kept apart when they were obviously so alike? The whole idea of race is nonsense; it is born of savage violence and maintained for no profitable reason. Proving the lie, the white "owners" did not hesitate to conceive children by their "slave" women, and yet they disowned their own progeny. But this savage indifference to suffering -- that of others and one's own -- remains in other forms in our blood.
Mixed race couples are still looked askance by many people. This only reveals how deep the guilt lies, and that we have not yet paid double for our sins.
Atonement begins with acknowledgement of our shameful past and gratitude for the new birth offered by a merciful God. The United States is one of the most blessed nations on Earth because of our dark past. We understand better than anyone the nonsense of race, and that all Americans are called to work out our salvation with fear and trembling. We are grateful for the gifts of Africa even as we atone for our European heritage.
Returning from travel in Europe I have felt relief and joy to see African-Americans flying with me, staffing the airlines and airports. This is my country, I thought, as I collected my luggage.When we become willing to atone for our past we will hear the cry of Good News:
Like a shepherd he feeds his flock;in his arms he gathers the lambs,Carrying them in his bosom,and leading the ewes with care.