It is very interesting to see how the media and various public figures have reacted to Mandela's death. There has been a lot of talk about Mandela's commitment to forgiveness and reconciliation. And that was undoubtedly part of his legacy, and one which as Christians we celebrate. But Mandela realised, in a way I am not convinced that all his obiturists do, that genuine forgiveness is hard won. Forgiveness is not cheap; rather for him it occurred on the other side of a life involving taking sides against injustice, suffering, persecution, struggle, and victory. In the same way, of course, the forgiveness we all need comes to us through a life, through the blood of the Cross, and through the triumph of the empty tomb. There is nothing glib here, nothing that allows us to cover up injustice, or the need to oppose it, with premature appeals to forgiveness. The prophet Jeremiah denounces those who "cry 'peace, peace' when there is no peace".
It is the less comfortable, more confrontational side to Mandela in which I am interested. In standing up for justice in the face of power exercised for injustice, he echoes the prophetic tradition of the Old Testament. The prophets were not - as we sometimes are in danger of thinking - holy fortune tellers. Rather, they dealt solidly and squarely with the here-and-now of the real world, telling - often quite bluntly - God's people, especially their rulers, when they were falling away from their relationship with God by damaging the poor and the oppressed.
The Church - and that means all of us - needs to continue this prophetic work in our own day. It is part of what we have been baptised to do.
But nor should we get too comfortable, spending all of our time pointing out wrong doing in others (however necessary that might be when those others have the power to oppress and exploit) without ever turning our critical attention on ourselves. In today's gospel one of the central characters of Advent, the great prophet St John the Baptist, turns on some of God's People, the Sadduccees and Pharisees, calling them a 'brood of vipers' and warning them not to appeal to their special status as God's People. Because, after all, God doesn't need them. God could make new children for Abraham out of stone. They need to repent.
And what about us? It is no good us sitting smugly and imagining that as the Church we are somehow privileged. God no more needs us than he needed the Pharisees and Sadduccees. How are we failing to live God's children? How are we complicit in injustice and oppression? What are the hypocrisies of which we need to repent? Those questions force themselves upon us during Advent and we should each of us spend time thinking about them, and then turn back to the Lord who wants to forgive us.
Drop down, ye heavens from above; and let the clouds rain the Just One.