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Thursday, December 17, 2015

Second thoughts: Dancing in the darkness with God

What I heard Sunday in the readings were those words, "in your midst," chiming out like a rhyme at the end of a song lyric.
Fear not, O Zion, be not discouraged!The LORD, your God, is in your midst,a mighty savior...(Zeph. 3:15) 
Shout with exultation, O city of Zion,for great in your midstis the Holy One of Israel! (Is. 12:6)


Neither Zephaniah, in the 6th century BCE, and Isaiah, in the 8th, lived in the lap of luxury. Both prophesied in intensely difficult times, Zephaniah at about the time of the Babylonian conquest, and Isaiah at the time of the Assyrian conquest, both of which involved deportation of the population. We're reading versions of their prophecies descended from oral traditions over several centuries and edited after the return from Babylon, at the time of the Second Temple, probably in the 5th-4th century BCE. Plenty of time to finesse the prophecies, of course, but in the face of the vagaries of Israel's experience in history, their scriptures cling to faith in the covenant with God against incredible historical pressures to accommodate to stronger neighbors. Through it all, there is in the prophetic tradition both a warning against betrayal of the covenant and a deep faith even in the worst of times that God is present with them, "in our midst," as the readings today say, and a cause for rejoicing. Isaiah's great name for God is Emmanuel—God-with-us, which seems to be our favorite Advent appellation for the divine.

I guess I keep coming back to this because the world is still this way, the Christian world, the Jewish world, the whole divine world, in songwriter Greg Brown's happy phrase, "like a thump-ripe melon,/ So sweet, and such a mess." Somehow we think that happiness, ease of life, health, wealth, all that stuff, are signs of God's presence. But the witness of scripture is that it ain't necessarily so. Those things are no more a sign of divine favor than sickness, poverty, exile, and death are signs of God's absence. God seems to be present in all of it, but perhaps most clearly, most impossibly, in the places we least likely want to enter, places of shame, loss, and death. When we enter into those experiences, we find that God has gone there ahead of us. This is why, I think, the crucifix, with its corpus of the dying savior affixed, is such an omnipresent sign of consolation when we don't allow it to just be a decoration (as though as dead man nailed to a gallows could ever be a decoration.)

"O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" seemed like the perfect song for Sunday when we sang it, because of its play between "mourning in lonely exile" and the command to "rejoice." As I was thinking about it, I mused that in Latin, its original text alluding to birth rather than approach, begins with the words "Gaude, Emmanuel" (i.e., Rejoice, Emmanuel) which goes on to a different finish (Rejoice: Emmanuel shall be born for you, Israel) from the English version (Rejoice, Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel.) In another English translation, we hear "Rejoice, O Israel, to thee shall come Emmanuel." If the original verb were veniet (shall come) instead of nascetur (will be born), then the Latin, with the Hebrew words as both subject and indirect object being caseless, we would have the happy ambiguity of either our current meaning or of encouraging Emmanuel to rejoice because of Israel's approach. Alas, I think nascetur limits the field of meaning to one direction, but it gave me something to think about during the homily.

So, two things on more serious notes:

I have friends who are in darkness now. So do you. And as I say, the whole world has its share of darkness and pain. The advent message is fresh as tomorrow's dawn. I was just speaking to a friend who has chronic pain, and has had a tough go of it the past couple of years on several fronts. As we were speaking, I remembered some deep wisdom from Henri Nouwen's book, Life of the Beloved: Spiritual Living in a Secular World, which I read and integrated last summer into some sessions I facilitated with the adult track on aspects of the eucharist at Music Ministry Alive. In that book, Nouwen speaks of "befriending the brokenness" in our lives, rather than denying it, fleeing it, or suppressing it. Nouwen's starting point and unwavering faith, tried in the fire of his own suffering, is that God's love of us precedes everything we think and do, every failure, every agony, every betrayal or curse or malice we suffer at the hands of others, and continues to be with us as we go through life and suffer the effects of those events. While the darkness in the world tries to tell us that we are less than we imagined, worthless, rejected, unfit for life, the inner voice that is the voice of God continues to say, "You are my beloved child, in whom my favor rests." He proposes the difficult task of putting our pain and doubt "under the blessing," and not under the curse, which is to say, take the time in prayer to discern the presence of God within and listen to the authentic voice, the voice of life, the voice that spoke the universe into being. He says that "the challenge (Jesus) poses is to discern in the midst of our darkness the light of God. In Jesus’ vision everything, even the greatest tragedy, can become an occasion in which God’s works can be revealed."

This kind of faith, that God's presence is not "light at the end of the tunnel" but rather light in the darkness, life "in the midst" of death, dancing and joy "in the midst" of exile, as Zephaniah and Isaiah have it, is Advent faith, and timely as tomorrow's news.

Secondly, this sense that God goes before us into the darkness and is ever present there, in our midst even if our midst is a place of terror, sickness, and death, is a truth that we learned, and that Jesus and the apostles and St. Paul learned, from their scriptures. "Salvation comes from the Jews," as the gospel of St. John and Paul's letter to the Romans attest. I was so happy to read about Vatican statement last month that reiterated and even more clearly stated what was taught in Nostra Aetate, that it was the Jewish people whom God first called to covenant, that that call is irrevocable, and that Torah is a true way to salvation in the one God. I'm no expert in Judaism, and I don't claim at all to know the intricacies of the new Vatican document on Jewish relations, but I have read it. I believe from other reading that part of Jewish consciousness, encoded in the Hebrew language and in Yiddish which is descended from it, is a central metaphor of life as exile. The state of the Jew, whether in Eden, Egypt, Babylon, or just not in Jerusalem, is a state of being in exile. In fact, not being able to be in the temple of David. This was a watershed insight to me when I was reading Born to Kvetch: Yiddish Language and Culture in All of Its Moods (P.S.), Michael Wex's funny treatise on Yiddish.

The name of that Vatican document is "The Gift and Calling of God Is Irrevocable," which really ties up everything I want to say in this post. Without splitting hairs, the theologians who worked on that document expressed with clarity why it's possible, while still expressing the uniqueness of Jesus, to understand that the Jews are carried into God's life without acknowledging Jesus as Messiah and savior. It's because God does the carrying. It is because God called the Jewish people, and opened up the entire world to the possibility of Christianity through the narrative that formed that people, including Mary, Jesus, the apostles and Paul, and all of the first disciples. That narrative continued when, after the destruction of Jerusalem, rabbinic Judaism and, in James Alison's wonderful words, catholic Judaism (Christianity) went their separate ways. But even now, even after Jesus and the formation of the church, the law and the prophets continue to inform Christianity, even as they formed Jesus. For us, as the incarnate Word of God, the instantiation of the God of Moses, Jesus is love-made-flesh, the eternal call to the depth of undying agape that inspired the law and prophets in the first place. Jesus is the sacrament of God "in our midst," Emmanuel, God who says "I AM with you always." The Jewish people have their own understanding of God-with-us, but the covenant of love and presence that has bound them as a people for four and a half millennia continues in full force even as they experience their diaspora across the world, and live in a religious culture that is never "at home" in it.

Being in exile with Israel, opening ourselves to the experience of incompleteness while rejoicing in the truth of our deep solidarity with one another that precedes but is sacramentalized in baptism, confirmation, and eucharist, these are Advent experiences of God's presence. "Fear not," "do not be discouraged," "have no anxiety at all" are good things for us to hear because we forget who we are, beloved of God, being approached all the time by the divine mystery that wants to save us from the fear, anxiety, and violence we receive and imitate from the culture around us. "Great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel." Advent is about God approaching us, a God who jumps up and down in a joyful dance right in our dark world, inviting us to join in the hora, and reach out and invite others into an ever-widening, ever-deepening, God-centered circle.