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Saturday, December 19, 2015

Bethlehem, you think you're so small? (C4A)

The Visitation shrine at my church, the pregnant
Mary of Nazareth arriving to serve her kinswoman's needs.
Just when I thought that the Letter to the Hebrews was utterly beyond caring about, James Alison brings it alive into my life a couple of years ago by way of the somewhat cryptic opening to Jesus, the Forgiving Victim, wherein he introduces what he is about to spring on us through the first three verses from that letter:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways to our ancestors through the prophets; in these last days, he spoke to us through a son, whom he made heir of all things and through whom he created the universe, who is the refulgence of his glory, the very imprint of his being, and who sustains all things by his mighty word. (NABRE, Heb. 1:1-3) I confess that when I first launched into JtFV, it didn't really mean much to me, either, especially on page 1 or 2, and James made such a big deal out of it!

But as we went forward, it began to make more sense. Everything about the story that the author of Hebrews refers to, the story of their ancestors through the prophets, came in a new and direct way through Jesus of Nazareth, "the very imprint of his (i.e., God's) being." In other words, as we say during Advent, God is making God's approach to us, from within and yet beyond the universe that God made and which cannot contain divinity. When I read the verses from Hebrews that are this Sunday's second reading, I hear it in Alison's context. Jesus has come "to do your will," to do what God always does, to come with healing and love, going before us into the places we dread with assurances of life and the exhortation, "Do not be afraid." Jesus is the incarnation of a God that humanity had not imagined, a God who was not interested in "sacrifices and holocausts for sin," but in the one, in all of those, who "come to do your will" by taking the victim's place, showing rivalry and hatred for what it is, and fearlessly taking their life into the place of death with generosity and hope.

The gospel on Advent 4 in Year C is the story of the encounter between Mary and Elizabeth when Mary visits Elizabeth during her strange and unexpected pregnancy. Here, the younger Mary makes the journey to see to her kinswoman's health during her delivery, and Luke puts into their mouths joyful words of promise and fulfillment. Here again, Alison helps us see yet another literary undercurrent in the story. There are a succession of hints that an elaborate Atonement ritual is being carried out, to be recognized after the birth of Jesus by none other than the priest Zechariah, also the name of the priest recognized in the Septuagint as the last priest to have a vision of the Holy One during the rite of atonement in the first temple before the deportation to Assyria:
Elizabeth, as soon as she hears Mary arrive, “shouts out with a great shout” — the same Greek verb as the shout by which the Levites greeted the Ark of the Covenant when King David brought it into Jerusalem. And then John the Baptist, still in her womb, dances with joy, in the same way as David danced before the Ark. In other words: the missing holy objects are all coming back into the restored Temple, a process which will be complete when the Fire comes back, at Pentecost, and the wall of separation between Gentiles and Jews comes down shortly thereafter. [Alison, James (2013-11-11). Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice - An Introduction to Christianity for Adults (p. 247). DOERS Publishing LLC. Kindle Edition.] 
Advent is nothing if it is not a calling to an increased attentiveness to God's approach in our world. And this is not the God we had imagined, one who approaches with violence and retribution to be inflicted by an entourage of super beings, but a God who puts an end to sacrifice and wants to flood us with life, health, and possibility. Sacrifice diverts our guilt onto another symbolic victim to let us continue on our merry way; ritual lets us substitute words and symbols for the actual solidarity and commitment to others that create peace and justice. God, rather, approaches as a human person, and shows us how to live on behalf of others, without fear, without artificial separation and borders. God approaches without threat, but with an invitation, "Follow me." Chances are, whatever or whomever we've been following already, we know something's really wrong, that we're causing devastation and havoc around the world that just keeps getting more fearsome and hopeless, and we need a way out. God approaches in the midst of all that as a baby and a gospel and says, "this is going to take some time, but we have all the time there is: follow me."

Like Elizabeth, like Mary, like the sleepy town of Bethlehem, we may be full up and have our own problems. We may feel overwhelmed, unsuited, too small, too old, too young, too oppressed, too entitled, too busy, too sinful, too dirty, to take on the project that God has begun and to which God continues to give life. It is God who reassures us, whose word calls us "blessed" and "beloved," and who teaches us to say, "I come to do your will." Or as Mary said, quoted in the gospel antiphon today, "I am your servant; do with me as you wish." Nobody thought of this before, even though it was all around us in nature, that we can't cling to life, but we can multiply it by giving it away.

Standing generously in the darkness, surrounded by a world looking for leaders who will end the fear and terror upon which we've been feeding in our feral lives, we'd do well, like Mary, to go visit a pregnant kinswoman who needs us, or, like occupied Bethlehem, open our doors to some strangers in need of a place to stay. It's dark, dangerous, and cold. But God is drawing near, with an invitation to the world to walk a new path out of its fear and danger. It's God's project, not mine. But I want to go there, to say with Mary, "Fiat. Do it through me." Or, in the words of ELCA pastor Nadia Bolz-Weber, whose language is more like my vernacular, I may be scared, I don't know where this will end up, but "screw it. I'll go first."

What we're singing this weekend:

Entrance: Canticle of the Turning
Psalm 80: Lord Come and Save Us (Kendzia)
Advent Alleluia (Joncas)
No Wind at the Window (Bell)
Mass of Creation
Communion: Walk in the Reign
Sending Forth: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (vv 1, 6, 7)
or Come, Emmanuel (Alonso)