Jerusalem was, of course, the center of the Roman occupation force; there were garrisons in the outlying areas as well, particularly near the larger economic centers like Capernaum and Caesarea on the Sea of Galilee. It is in Jerusalem that the foreign occupying power has its center, where the Roman governor resides in his fortress. It is there that the Jewish hierarchy and landed elite live as well, carefully managing their status through compromise and collaboration with Rome. In this relationship of exploitation that is both political and economic, the big losers are the ordinary people, artisans, farmers, fishermen, who make up the people of God. The Pax Romana is not for them, it is for Rome. It will not crush them as long as they cooperate with the regime, pay their taxes, and keep their mouths shut.
For John, though, the axe is already laid to the root of the tree. He sees that Israel, born in the Exodus, was meant for freedom, not for subjugation. His baptism of repentance was a way of allowing people to wash off the fouling influence of emperor worship and be cleansed in the waters of the promised land, God’s land of milk and honey. It is in the wilderness, significantly away from the influence of the city, that he does his ministry. The emissaries of the power elite have to come out to him to find out what he’s up to. He cryptically informs them that he’s just the scout; there is one coming after him who will turn his cleansing bath into a smelter. It’s not clear that even John knows what is coming; later, from prison, he sends emissaries to his cousin Jesus to ask if he’s the one, and Jesus tells them to report back what they’ve seen for themselves. He refers them to healing and restoration, signs of the advent of God’s dominion, the defeat of sin and the clear alternative to the dominion of the murderous Pax Romana. This is not to say that Jesus was an advocate for a violent revolution, but, violent or not, turning away from the emperor would bring upon his followers the wrath of Caesar’s empire in years to come.
John reminds me that it’s my job to live on the edge. Human boundaries of church and state tend to want to tighten because the power of the institution is the sphere of its influence. But the reign of Jesus, the reign of God, is not like the kingdoms of this world. I always have to be on guard against the creeping influence both of nationalistic and ecclesial triumphalism. Ultimately, I don’t belong to the USA nor to Catholic Rome, I belong to Christ. My book is neither the catechism nor the constitution; it is the word of God, and by that, I don’t even necessarily mean Scripture, I mean Christ. What could go wrong?
Obviously, I’m not the sole or best interpreter of what that means. I need to be in dialogue with both the Church and the nation. What I've learned this year, or at least have been able to articulate and start to interiorize better than anything else, are these two things, about which I've written in earlier posts: 1) doing our best is not the same as doing good; and 2) not achieving my ideal is not the same as doing badly. In the first case, we should not excuse violence, war, making money hand-over-fist in the markets as doing good just because we don't see another path that will work. When people are hurt, impoverished, marginalized, and killed because of what we do, it should be a clear indication that we're doing evil, not good, however necessary our deeds might be. Only God is good, and our activity is only good in that it is like God, that is, more concerned with the other than with the self. This should change how we worship, I think, and how we think about repentance. In the latter case, as a Catholic lifer, I need to overcome my need to be right all the time, and stop putting down steps forward that aren't in what I perceive to be the right direction. "Being right" is a communal reality, and rarely what any of us thinks it is. Sometimes communal missteps can lead to major corrections that benefit everyone. I need to pay attention to both of these realities in my life.
But my baptismal ties to Christ are more real and stronger than all the other ties that bind me; in fact, they bind me more closely to both church and state than any creed or pledge of allegiance could, but only insofar as the demands of either do not countermand the command of the gospel to love the other as I love myself. It is a precarious place for a liturgist to live, because the liturgy upholds Christ who is both icon and iconoclast. Christ is a person, not an idea, nor a creed. Whenever Christ begins to look too much like a god, a general, an emperor, a legislator, I find him bending down to wash my feet and the feet of the world. May it be so with me and you, and all who seek him this advent season.
Music for this “Gaudete” Sunday, the 3rd Sunday of Advent.
Gathering: On Jordan’s Bank
Psalm: Canticle of Mary (Magnificat) Luke 2. "Mary's Song," by Michael Joncas, lyrics by Huub Oosterhuis.
Gifts: Come to Us, O Emmanuel (Gift of God) (Haugen) We've used this to gather the first two Sundays of Lent. Doing it during the preparation of the gifts should give us the opportunity to sing all the verses and really sit with it.
Communion: Walk in the Reign (Cooney) If you've sung this song, you know that I tried to write the verses to reflect the language and imagery of each of the four Sundays. We sing it during ordinary time in the summer with "parable" verses to help pull the liturgical year together, and even since it isn't in Gather any longer I use it once or twice during Advent because it continues to be a favorite at our place, and a refrain people can sing without looking at their worship aid, making it a good seasonal communion song.
Recessional: O Come, O Come Emmanuel. I try to save this for the last two Sundays of Advent, simply because the origin of the text is from the vespers Magnificat antiphons for the last seven evenings before Christmas. I’ve probably mentioned this before, but the antiphons for those nights are called the “O” antiphons, referring to the names of the Messiah used at the beginning of each one. These are the verses of the hymn “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel,” except that their order has been reversed, the song beginning with Emmanuel, rather than ending, as the antiphons do with “Emmanuel” on December 24. The names are (in Latin, in order from December 24 backwards to the 18th) Emmanuel, Rex Gentium (King of all nations), Oriens (rising sun), Clavis David (key of David), Radix Jesse (Root of Jesse), Adonai (Lord - the word used by Scripture in place of the divine name), Sapientia (Wisdom.) The first letter of each, read backwards from December 24, spells out “ERO CRAS” which means “Tomorrow I will be (there)”. Some medieval monk went to a lot of trouble, wouldn’t you say?
So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us?
What do you have to say for yourself?”
He said: “I am the voice of one crying out in the desert,
‘make straight the way of the Lord.’”