by Father Mike Stubbs
I like sandwiches. They can make a meal that is both quick and tasty, easy to eat, and that includes major food groups — protein and starch (meat and bread) — and sometimes more.
It is easy to find sandwiches. They are all over. You can even find some in the Bible. Sunday’s first reading — Is 43:18-19, 21-22, 24b-25 — offers us a good example. In this case, though, the sandwich is not edible. It is a literary device. A word or phrase begins a section. The same word or phrase concludes the section, thus making a “sandwich.” Another name for this literary device is “inclusio.”
In the case of Sunday’s first reading, the word forming the sandwich is “remember.” It occurs in both the first and the last sentence of the selection: “Remember not the events of the past” and “Your sins I remember no more.” Notice that in both instances, the verb “remember” is negated. That second element of negation adds another layer to the sandwich and makes it clearer and more definite.
In this reading, God is speaking to the people of Israel. They have suffered a long exile in the land of Babylon. But finally, that exile is coming to an end. They will return home.
The prophecy compares that home-coming to the Exodus from Egypt, which originally had brought the people of Israel into the promised land hundreds of years earlier. God assures them that this entrance into the promised land will prove even better than the first. It will exceed all their expectations. That is why God says, “Remember not the events of the past.” In other words, forget about the Exodus. This entrance into the promised land will far surpass it.
The assurance about Israel’s return forms the first half of the sandwich. The second half of the sandwich concerns God’s forgiveness. Even though Israel has sinned against God, all that will be forgotten: “Your sins I remember no more.” Since the people of Israel have understood their exile as a punishment for their sins, God’s forgetting about their sins as their exile comes to a close makes sense. When the prophecy says that God will forget about their sins, it doesn’t mean that God is coming down with Alzheimer’s disease. It is a way to emphasize God’s total and complete forgiveness: “It is I, I, who wipe out, for my own sake, your offenses.”
God is assuring the people of Israel that all will be good. As people of faith, we also have inherited that assurance. In no longer remembering our sins, God is also doing something new for us: “See, I am doing something new!”