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Thursday, December 19, 2013

Advent 104: Solidarity

All this took place to fulfill what the Lord had said through the prophet:
Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son,
and they shall name him Emmanuel
which means “God is with us.”

The four weeks of Advent, while they have clear similarities from year to year occasioned by their tradition and connection to Christmas, also have some distinct features that exhibit themselves year to year in the distinct biblical readings of the lectionary. I've tried to capture the spirit of the four weeks of Advent in year A, which is to say, suggest some of the many dynamics of this wonderful season, in four words, a word each week suggested by that Sunday: waiting, preparing, and rejoicing for the first three weeks. Hard to find a single word for what I wanted to say for Advent 4, especially because I was using a gerund (an "-ing" verb-noun) for each week, and there really isn't one for what I want to say. As close as I can think of is "being-with-you", which is sort of cheating-by-hyphenation. So I settled on "solidarity," and now you know how I would define solidarity in Advent: being-with-you. Emmanuel.

Year A of the lectionary features the first gospel, called the gospel of St. Matthew, which has a particular theology that arises out of the faith of the community it emerged from, the stories it knew from the evangelists and apostles who formed it and perhaps even knew Jesus, and the needs of that community that the compiler(s) of the gospel saw and addressed as they wrote it down, maybe sixty years after the death of Jesus. Among those many needs was certainly the growing awareness that the return of the Lord in the parousia was not as imminent as they, and possibly Jesus himself, had first believed. But from beginning to end, the author of the first gospel reassures the community that whether or not there was to be a physical return of the Lord in the lifetime of believers, he was there among them just as surely and just as really as if he had appeared on a cloud or in their rooms. The question, then, was the same question the apostles would have asked at the empty tomb: Where is he? Matthew answers that question in all kinds of ways that boil down to this: when you get together and be the community that I have taught you to be, full of the Holy Spirit, I am with you. When you are ekklesia, people called out to be together, to be church, I am with you. Emmanuel.

In Sunday's first reading, the timid king Ahaz, king of Judah, was threatened by the king of the northern kingdom of Israel and his ally in Aram. God, of course, had promised that he would preserve the line of the David kings through all dangers and enemies, but Ahaz thought that Assyria might be a more suitable ally in these dangerous political times. Isaiah reminded Ahaz of God's promise, and offered, on God's behalf, to give a sign of God's intention to keep his promises. Ahaz demurs, however, with something along the lines of, "Oh heavens, I would never ask God to prove himself. I've contacted Tiglath-Pileser. I'm good." Isaiah responds that God will give a sign anyway, that a young woman will bear a son and call him "Emmanuel," God-with-us. 

In the gospel, we encounter Joseph, troubled by the pregnancy of his betrothed, dreaming a course of action that interrupts his waking plans. An angel (i.e., a messenger, or a message, like a gospel [evangel] only the news isn't necessarily good!) appears in the dream to say, "Don't be afraid to take Mary as your wife. There's more to this than meets the eye, and God is involved." The appeal is to Joseph's sense of justice, his religious instinct that things should be as God wants them. As difficult as the leap may have been, he takes it because of God's presence to the event. The child's name will be Yehoshua, God is salvation. I shall be with you is God's message, and the just Joseph takes his pregnant betrothed into his home.

Paul, facing the dangerous trip to Jerusalem, writes to the Roman church and encourages them to keep the faith without succumbing either to the conviction that salvation can come through obedience to the Law (a temptation which might arise from the Jewish origins of some Roman Christians) nor to the exaggerated, irresponsible freedom that might be the backlash temptation from its Gentile contingent. Paul's instinct is to unite disparate approaches and theologies in faith in Christ, whose life and death is an image of God who sent him. Division of the body of Christ is unthinkable to Paul, and he deals with the reality of it by preaching the permanent, irretractible, divinely imbedded love of Christ that manifests itself in mutual love within the community and its care for the poor and evangelical outreach to the world. He longs to come to Rome himself and intends to do so, after bringing the alms of the Greek churches back to Jerusalem where there is so much suffering. He will, in fact, only make it back to Rome in chains, and will die there. But his desire for solidarity with the church there produced the timeless letter of which we hear the beginning this Sunday, and which has shaped the faith of Christians for two millennia with a vision that is closer to Christ than the gospels.

What does all that "Emmanuel" business mean to us? Soldiers from the late Roman Empire through the Wehrmacht in World War II have used the words "Dominus nobiscum" or "Gott mit uns" in many languages, using the name of Emmanuel to bring Caesar's "peace" to the world at the end of blade or bullet or bomb.  Is our Emmanuel simply allowing the warmth of the season to wash over us again, reminding us like an advertisement that "God so loved the world that he sent his only son"? Well, it's hard for me to believe that's all it is. This is my sixty-first Christmas. I know how the story ends. I have an inkling what it means that God is with us, and how that solidarity of God translates into real life, how it requires abandoning heaven, how it sees through the posturing of kings and priests, how it sees the essential unity of all people, even the most unlovable, even the enemy. I think I know now that "Emmanuel" isn't just to warm me up in my house while I drink cocoa and watch White ChristmasEmmanuel is the gospel, it is a way of life that gathers together with others who have also begun to see that "God-with-us" makes an "us," not a "me." Just as I've heard about shepherds, angels, Herod, and the Magi sixty-one times, I've heard about betrayal, trial, the lash, and the cross and the spear. And sixty-one times I've heard about the the empty tomb, and I've heard the words, "Receive the Holy Spirit. As the Father sent me, so I send you." Emmanuel isn't history. Emmanuel is an autobiography being written by God's hand in my own DNA. While I hear "Do not be afraid, I shall be with you," I am gently invited to speak those words to my neighbor, to let my neighbor know Emmanuel, God-with-us.

In 1989, the year I wrote "Walk in the Reign," I was reminded of Emmanuel by the story of Nelson Mandela, and we have been reminded of that story again this fall, nearly twenty-five years later. I was reminded of the resistance of Europeans to the tyranny of ideas and force in the fall of the Berlin wall and the Solidarity movement in Poland. I was reminded of Emmanuel by the pictures of the students resisting the violent regime of China in the iconic photograph of a solitary student standing in front of a tank in Tienanmen Square.

At the end of 2013, I am reminded of 1989 again recently when Rocco Palma at the whispersintheloggia.com blog posted a brief tribute to Sr. Thea Bowman, who gave an unforgettable talk to the U.S. Catholic bishops at their annual meeting that year. Sr. Thea, her body weakened by advanced cancer in her bones, sat in a wheelchair and passionately, lovingly preached the gospel to the preachers, teaching them what it means to be in solidarity from the perspective of a black Catholic woman from Mississippi. I was so grateful to be reminded of Sr. Thea, and her speech seems like a good way to end this Advent story for 2013, which is to say, it's a good way to begin a new year of grace.



Sr. Thea Bowman, Speech to US Catholic Bishops, 1989

At the end of her talk, Sr. Thea begins singing "We Shall Overcome" and encouraged the bishops to join her song. She encouraged them to "walk together in a new way toward that land of promise, and to celebrate who we are and whose we are."
If we as church walk together...Don't let nobody separate you, you know, put the lay folk over here and the clergy over here, put the bishops in one room and the clergy in the other room, put the women over here and the men over here...the family got to stay together. We know that if we do stay together, if we stand to gather in Jesus' name, we'll be who we say we are: truly Catholic, and we shall overcome.  Overcome the loneliness, the poverty, the alienation."
She told them to move together, and taught them to hold hands, crossing their arms across their chest. "You got to move together to do that,” she says.
In the old days, you had to tighten up so that when the bullets would come, so that when the tear gas would come, when the dogs would come, when the horses would come, when the tanks would come, brothers and sisters would not be separated from one another. And you remember what they did the clergy and bishops in those old days, where they put them? Right up in front. To lead the people in solidarity with our brothers and sisters in the church who suffer in South Africa, who suffer in Poland, in Ireland, in Guatemala, all over this world. We shall live in love.
In the spirit of Sr. Thea, and I hope in the spirit of the gospel, in the spirit of our baptism into Christ, in the spirit of this season of the incarnation, this "Easter in wintertime," I offer you this litany of Emmanuel to launch you into the fourth weekend of Advent. As God is with us, let us be with each other in waiting, preparing, rejoicing, and solidarity.

They shall call his name "Emmanuel," a name that means "God with us."
I shall be with you always.

Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives the one who sent me.
I shall be with you always.

Where two or three are gathered in my name, there I am in the midst of them.
I shall be with you always.

Whenever you did it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did it to me.
I shall be with you always.

As the Father sent me, so I send you.
I shall be with you always.

All of you who are hungry or thirsty,
The people of Emmanuel, we shall be with you always.

All of you who are homeless or in exile,
The people of Emmanuel, we shall be with you always.

All of you who are sick, or in prison, or grieving,
The people of Emmanuel, we shall be with you always.

All of you who suffer because of war and violence,
The people of Emmanuel, we shall be with you always.

All of you without a voice in the halls of government,
The people of Emmanuel, we shall be with you always.

Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.
Close as tomorrow the sun shall appear.
Freedom is coming, and healing is near,
And I shall be with you, in laughter and pain,
To stand in the wind, and walk in the reign.
Bethlehem, you think you're so small
That God doesn't notice your children at all?

The streets of Soweto, the docks at Gdansk,
Tienanmen Square, the slums of the Bronx,
When we stand together to stand against hell,
The name of this people is Emmanuel. 
The morning of madness, Manhattan in flame,
In Gaza and Kabul the cry is the same:
"Has God turned against us, his people reviled?"
The same sign is given: a woman with child,
A woman with child.

Close as tomorrow the sun shall appear.
Freedom is coming, and healing is near,
And I shall be with you, in laughter and pain,
To stand in the wind, and walk in the reign.
Walk In the Reign - Safety Harbor © 1989 GIA Publications.