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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)




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.

Friday, December 11, 2015

What Should We Do? (C3A)

Rejoice in the Lord always.
I shall say it again: rejoice!
Your kindness should be known to all.
The Lord is near.

A lot of people who don't do my job will find it mildly weird that the place where I most often hear that reading, the second reading for the 3rd Sunday in Advent, is at funerals. I don't believe it's one of the readings in the Rite, but it gets chosen more often than you might think. I'm guessing that people don't always want what they perceive to be "downer" readings from the bible for the funeral of a family member or friend, but are looking for something "upbeat." And this reading fits the bill, as it continues to admonish us to "have no anxiety at all," and await the "peace that surpasses understanding." I love that. There's a deep-down faith that clings to that kind of inner peace in difficult times like death.

Which is why "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" is such a great song during the late part of Advent especially, and especially on this Sunday, with it's climactic refrain proclaiming "Rejoice! Rejoice!" After verses whose minor-modal pleas to God under seven Old Testament names attest to the pain of exile, death, and darkness, the refrain carries the kerygma of the immanent birth of Emmanuel. As always with scriptural and therefore liturgical uses of the word "Israel" in texts, we should be careful to understand that Israel is a "we" and not a "them." I think we do identify with the text in its spirit, that is, we know something is wrong, we feel like we're in exile, we have experiences of loss, alienation, and death, but the One to whom we cry "Come!" and from whom we hear the exultant cry "Rejoice" is for us, now, and not only for "them, someday." (Footnote, back on the subject of funerals: don't you think "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" would be a great funeral song during Advent? I wonder why people don't think of it. In all my years of playing for dozens of funerals during the season, I can't recall a single one where it was requested. A lot of times I'll play it anyway, as a prelude or postlude.)

I suppose it doesn't hurt to ask you, with me, to remember that Christmas is, in Richard Fragomeni's happy phrase, "Easter in wintertime," and so Advent is like a winter Lent, which invites us to get in touch with the turning we call "conversion" or metanoia and prepare ourselves by changes in our activities and habits of thinking to live more authentically as followers of Jesus. John Dominic Crossan in his book The First Christmas: What the Gospels Really Teach About Jesus's Birth about the infancy narratives uses the word "overture" to describe their function in the overall composition of the gospels. The first two chapters of Luke and Matthew are "gospels in miniature," like the overture to an opera or a musical, in which the themes of the gospel, the meaning of Jesus, especially his death and resurrection, are introduced to the community through stories about his birth and childhood.

It's interesting that we're not given the three verses that intervene between last Sunday's gospel and this Sunday's, which give us a little insight into the personality of the proprietor of the Locusts and Wild Honey River Bistro. Crowds of people are responding to his preaching enthusiastically. They want to be cleansed of their capitulation to Rome and its emperor and storm troopers, they want to wash off their fear and despair and start over in the Promised Land. But John turns on them, rather like Jonah, who didn't expect or want the conversion of those to whom he was sent. John accosts the crowds like a cranky loner, and asks them, one can only imagine to their dismay, "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? Produce good fruits as evidence of your repentance; and do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham as our father,’ for I tell you, God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones. Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees. Therefore every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.” Unlike the parallel passage in MT, John is not addressing Temple representatives, but the crowds. He wants to be clear: this is about real conversion, metanoia, and there's a price to be paid in blood. John may be offering a bath and a path through the Jordan, but "the one who comes after" is going to burn the house down.

Of course, he was wrong about that. Jesus knew that the Father's love precedes conversion, that the Father's forgiveness is already present. Sowing sin reaps havoc, but that's not God's fault. God was drawing near in Jesus to undo that cycle, and to plant seeds of a new field. John's axe lay at the root of the tree; Jesus would say, "Leave it another year; let's see if I can bring out some foliage."

"Produce good evidence," John says, in the verse that precedes today's gospel. You can imagine the crowd, the most intrepid and frontmost probably cringing, cowering, and wiping off his wild expectorations, timidly asking, "W-w-w-what shall we do?" They do not want to see the business end of the messiah's axe any more than they want the lash or the edge of the centurion's sword.

John's response is, in so many words, "Take care of each other. Be merciful, especially to those who are weaker than you are."

What should we do? Taking care of each other is a good start and a good habit. It can replace our habits of ignoring need, writing people off, grasping for every bit of immediate gratification. But for me this year the difference is a new recognition that this has to be because God has been merciful to me, and isn't laying some burden on me that God hasn't already taken upon divinity in the incarnation and life, death, and resurrection. I will not listen to prophets who use the threats of civilization, as though God were an insatiable despot whose "good news" was "behave, or else, and praise me!" No, I've come to begin to understand how the very habits of "being good" can actually get in the way of the expression of mercy and love. How else to begin to explain the exclusion of people that the church is desperately trying to summon "back home"? The easiest way to see this is to think about the gospel: Wasn't it good people, doing their jobs, following their rules and traditions, who ignored the plight of the man beaten by robbers in the parable of the Good Samaritan? Wasn't it good people, following their traditions, who could not see the presence of God in a healing when it took place on the Sabbath? Wasn't it good people, following their laws, who collaborated or were silent as Jesus was led to slaughter? In every case, it was. If it's a choice between being loving and merciful and being good, I want to be loving and merciful. Isn't that what St. Paul was getting at in 1 Cor. 13, when his litany of mercy said it was possible to "give away everything I own, and give up my body that I may boast," but then say, "if I have no love, I am nothing at all"?



The word "advent" means "approach," "coming near." But who's drawing near whom? Do we think that somehow we can approach God through our efforts at being good? Or is the truth that we need to stop, find the signs of God's approach in our days, look for moments of mercy when life grew out of death, when someone saved us by going into the darkness ahead of us when we were afraid, or took the place of the victim on our behalf. God has come near to us, God has made an advent, in Jesus Christ who is the gospel, the good news. Becoming imitators of God's mercy invites us to stop "being good" and try something new, try being mercy. Try being love. That would make our song today ring with new meaning: "Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to you, O Israel!"

What we're singing at St. Anne on Sunday:

Entrance: O Come, O Come, Emmanuel (at 2 masses, Tony Alonso's "Come Emmanuel")
Penitential Rite based on above
Psalm: Isaiah 12, Haugen version in Gather, using refrain 2
Presentation of Gifts: A Voice Cries Out (Joncas)
Mass of St Aidan
Communion: The Wilderness Awaits You or Walk in the Reign
Recessional: On Jordan's Bank (at 2 masses, Canticle of the Turning)

Tuesday, December 8, 2015

Second thoughts—(C2A) Baruch, God's mercy, and the dreary curse of aPelagian Advent

I haven't been able to get a recent session with James Alison out of my head, and it might be for a good reason after all. I suspect that will be up for you to decide if you have the stamina to reach the end of this article. It's stems from his exposition of a series of passages in Luke, and I'll give a synopsis of one at the end of this post. Meanwhile, please, bear with me.

First, let me say that I think this Year of Mercy is a great idea, especially the way Pope Francis has mixed in the word "tenderness" and the Catholic ambivalent "extraordinary." When Catholics say "extraordinary" or "ordinary" we're generally not making a value judgment. We're speaking Latin in the 21st century like a bunch of noobs, and what we mean is "ordinary" in the sense of "pertain to order (or orders)." For instance, extraordinary ministers of the eucharist, while "ordinary" to most Sunday celebrations in the sense of "they're usually there," are "extraordinary" in the sense that they're not ordained, they don't have (holy) orders. Ordained people are "ordinary" ministers of the eucharist. The rest of those who do so are extraordinary. And we're extraordinarily lucky to have them, otherwise mass would be another half hour long. "Ordinary Time" isn't just "not special," it means that the Sundays are numbered "in order." Back to the extraordinary year of mercy: they usually come every 25 years—we just had one in Y2K. But this pope felt that this was the time, I think, with so much violence and internecine rivalry in the world, to take a year to look mercy in the face, as it were, and see what it really looks like. Or rather, whom it really looks like. To him, the face of mercy is the face of Jesus, which is to say, the one who showed us that sacrifice and religious ritual and practice and membership is not a substitute for acting with mercy and love toward one another, but a path in which to exercise mercy and love. "Go and learn the meaning of this: 'It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.'" Nothing in our religious life (this includes our politics) must stand in the way of acting as neighbor (or as sister or brother) to the person or people who need me. Nothing. People first; rite second.

But I have been a little concerned that local churches, lacking the imagination, courage, and zeal of the Holy Father, and with long and revered (if unaware) habits of substituting rite for mercy, have begun to indulge in a bit of reductionism. What I mean is, the message of God's mercy lavished on the world is being constricted into "forgiveness of sins," and specifically, going to confession. If that is the case, the message is lost, and we can just forget about the whole thing. For one thing, for at least a generation, the mediation of mercy through the clerical class is a non-starter. The clergy sex scandals of the last generation and the current generation's complicity and cover-up of the scandal has seen to that. For another thing, the trivialization of sin by reduction to matters reproductive has made a sham of the idea of the confession of sin in a world of manipulated economics and power. When first communion parent classes are told to teach their children about the sinfulness of masturbation, for instance, we have a problem with sin. When preachers use the pulpit to preach their opinions about candidates based on their records on reproductive rights when their opponents have vigorously anti-life positions on gun sales, war, poverty, and immigration, any talk of confession is passé. What we need is the gospel of mercy. What we're getting is the desperation of power slipping away.

Both what I'm reading in social media and my experience of chatter among clergy and others leads me to think that something about the church's Confession Obsession is becoming the easy option for actual mercy and reconciliation. That's right, I said it. Once again, we substitute ritual for experience, rather than allowing ritual to be the public expression and intensification of our experience. Sacraments are visible signs of invisible realities, and yet over the years we want the outward sign to replace the interior reality. Confession instead of repentance. Mass instead of kingdom community. Baptism instead of genuine belonging.

But there is great material in these Advent liturgies for introducing mercy again as both a source of faith (i.e., God is mercy) and ethics (i.e., "be merciful as your heavenly Father is merciful.") John the Baptist, making his annual appearance on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, makes the first annunciation of the reign of God in advance of his encounters with Jesus. His message is something like this: repent, so that God will save you (i.e., get right, and make the wilderness road straight and level for God [Lk. 3:4-5, after Is. 40, 3-5]). Jesus, on the other hand, has a radically different message: "God has saved you, sin no more"; or better, "Follow me, let's eat." Jesus opens a path to conversion by risking contact and dialogue (after Baruch 5:7, wherein God makes the wilderness road straight and level for us.) Jesus understands that God's approach is merciful; Jesus is the mercy of God. God draws near to us in Jesus, and this blew me away Sunday night when I heard the first reading and finally heard the images in it from the liturgy of atonement!

That's what I'm getting at with the "dreary curse of a Pelagian Advent." I want everyone to know about the year of  mercy, that it's a visible sign of an invisible reality. The visible sign is the (finally) open door of the Big Churches, i.e., cathedrals and basilicas. But the invisible reality is, the door to God, the door to divine mercy, is always open. We open our doors every few years to remind us of that, but God never closes it. We baptize a few babies and adults every year, but the invisible reality is that everybody is already inside the eternal mercy of God. We break bread and share a cup among about one of 5 or 6 people in the world every week, and not all of us know or are convinced of what that means, but the invisible reality is that God's feast and table are set for everyone, everyone is invited, everyone belongs. The lack of participation isn't because we don't believe strongly enough; it's that we prefer to dine in our private accommodations with people like us, and aren't really interested in sharing life with strangers and enemies. We're not really catholic. Let's own that. But God is. I need a strategy for this year for being more like God. We all do. We need a big, daring, bleeding-heart, get-off-of-the-sofa, don't-be-afraid plan to be more like God. Starting this year. And then we leave the doors open. Remember Baruch: God is doing the valley-raising and the mountain-lowering. We need to look for that, and take that highway, and get off the political grid and out of the mall.

(If you're tired, this would be a good place to do something else, and come back to my blog later. There's a bit of a natural break here. If you're feeling particularly intrepid, or are drinking coffee, read on!)

It was only the fifth time that I heard the first reading when the imagery of the rite of atonement hit me in the stupid face. Jerusalem, being rescued by God from exile, is pictured in the reading from Baruch as being wrapped in the robe and mitre of the high priest in the atonement ritual, the one day of the year when the high priest is allowed speak the name of the Most High which is written in gold on his ceremonial headgear. In the rite, celebrated in the first temple but kept in an idealized memory through the captivity and recalled on the return, the Lord (i.e., YHWH) becomes flesh, in a sense, instantiated in the person of the high priest who emerges in white and gold raiment from the Holy of Holies in order to speak the divine name after completing the atonement sacrifice on behalf of his people. God, in other words, in order to keep the covenant and finally be at one with Israel emerges from the center of creation and blesses the people by being with them: Emmanuel. Here, in the prophecy of Baruch, God invests the anawim, the remnant of Israel returning from Babylon, with the vesture of the high priest and through the remnant presents the atonement to the whole earth:
Jerusalem, take off your robe of mourning and misery;
put on the splendor of glory from God forever:
wrapped in the cloak of justice from God,
bear on your head the mitrethat displays the glory of the eternal name.For God will show all the earth your splendor:
you will be named by God forever
the "peace of justice," the "glory of God’s worship." (emphases mine)

God's mercy is the starting point, the Presence-within-presence, the Other-other, that suffuses everything, first creating, then sustaining, and seeing everything into a benevolent future. We're in a culture that values self-actualization, that relativizes human dignity into market economics. If we can produce and purchase, we're valuable. The more we can produce and/or purchase, the more valuable we are. The less we can produce and/or purchase, the lower our place in civilization's food chain. If someone can disprove this, I'm listening.

But God's mercy isn't like that. The starting place is universal belovedness of every person in God's eyes. That's the invisible reality. The spark of divine mercy into whose image each human person was made calls from the deep, one to the other, without notice or reference to race, nation, belief system, or wealth. All of us receive our identity as human beings from others, from the Social Other, without whom we are nothing. We receive life, a name, language, the ability to walk and learn and discern from the Social Other. And the Social Other, from time immemorial, has systems of self-preservation in place to deal with our mimetic desire when we inevitable start to want the same things. We use strategies of violence, threats, incarceration, isolation, "majority rule" and so on in order to keep order. We communicate our fears, rivalries, and desires through our society in such a way as to get what we want, what we perceive to be good, and very often, if not always, at the expense of others. Without an alternative influence to the Social Other it is impossible to break out of our pattern of imitation that keeps us bound to violence. The face of mercy, the human face of Jesus that reflects the glory of God and God's wholly unselfish desire for humanity, God's love, is the alternative movement to the grinding gears of civilization in which the lives of the poor are burned for fuel and the progress of weak nations and peoples are crushed under the wheels of some counterfeit of progress.

The church ought to be the sacrament, that is, the visible sign of the invisible reality of God's mercy. The church ought to do in its worship some image of what we should already be doing as members of the church in the world. That is, our liturgy ought to describe in symbols the mercy that we have already experienced from God in our lives, and lead us to live out mercy with one another, with every one-another, outside of the liturgy. It stands to reason that the thing we want to get in touch with are the many ways we have messed up, wrought destruction, invited disaster with our lives, and have been shown mercy. We ought to be telling stories of our weakness and vulnerability, not touting our strength and power. (Of course, I'm reminded here of the "success" of Nadia Bolz-Weber's ministry and her books, which urge this very practice in Christian assemblies.) God's mercy is constant, never-failing, always present and available, preceding every thought or action of ours that flows from mercy. Somehow, the loving energy, the awareness of God's gift to us in Christ, the clear alternative to the violence, values, and rivalry of civilization, needs to be made explicit by Christians in our lives, and then proclaimed and celebrated in our liturgy. What happens too often, instead, is that we employ the strategies of civilization inside the church, and rather than being genuinely catholic, we create a group of insiders in opposition to outsiders, the very opposite of being catholic. The truth is, everyone is already in, and they haven't been told in such a way as to convince them that rivalry has been put off the table! We employ strategies inside the church that divide, create castes, imagine divine power as being mediated through a few rather than flowing out of baptismal grace into all, or worse, imagine divine power as the power of civilization writ large. We imagine that if we were just big enough and strong enough, we could conquer unbelief and win the whole thing. But divine power, of course, doesn't look like that. Divine power looks like being born in a stable, like touching the untouchable, eating with enemies, washing feet.

This is the Alison story I alluded to at the beginning of my post, if you have made it this far. It begins with a passage about a healing in the gospel of St. Luke. There are others like it, but just take a quick look at this story (Luke 13: 10-17). I hope to round it up at the end of this article with mercy, sacramentality, and Advent.

Alison's exegesis appears in Chapter 8, "On Inhabiting Texts and Being Discovered," (pp. 362-370, Kindle Edition) of Book 3, "The Difference Jesus Makes," of his work Jesus the Forgiving Victim: Listening for the Unheard Voice - An Introduction to Christianity for Adults. In the same section he takes similar tacks with three other passages: the man with the withered hand, casting out demons by Beelzebub, and Zacchaeus. The passage I'm referencing is the story of the healing, on a sabbath and in a synagogue, of a woman who had had an infirmity for eighteen years. Alison points out a few pieces of information to get us started:
1) the woman didn't come seeking healing; Jesus sees her, bent over and unable to straighten up, and heals her without her asking for anything.
2) the "eighteen years" is a literary clue that was meant to take those who heard it back into the Jewish scriptures, and the referent seems to be the story of Ehud in Judges 3: 12-25, an unforgettable story about a left-handed hero that, thanks to its swashbuckling hero and scatological detail, would have been known to every bar-mitzvahed teen in the world. In that story, Israel has been "bent over" and under the control of the Moabites for, you guessed it, eighteen years, and, unlike the woman in the synagogue, had "cried out to the Lord for a deliverer."
3) as usual, synagogue leader was upset because Jesus is healing on the sabbath.
4) the word behind Jesus's outburst, when he calls the synagogue leader and everyone else (maybe including the woman he healed) "hypokritai" in the passage, refers directly its the Septuagint usage in Job 36:13 "the godless in heart cherish anger; they do not cry for help when he binds them." There, the phrase hypokritai kordai, is translated by the NRSV "godless in heart." 
What Jesus is getting at is that refusing to pray to God for help when we're clearly in a mess, like, say, everyone in that synagogue under the thumb of the Roman empire, and the woman even in her distress, is a tacit complicity in godlessness. It is a lack of faith, an abandonment of the covenant. When the people were in a mess in the time of the Judges, they cried out, and God sent them a left-handed hero who delivered them from their eighteen-year bending-down. Now, he says, no one is crying out, and God shows up anyway in your midst, and heals you of your ills. Why? Because that's what God always does! And the kicker is, you don't want him to do so, because it interrupts your sabbath rituals when healing and freedom comes! Here, in the synagogue, in the very house of God, the healing power of God is made manifest, and we are indignant. Go figure!

This, and the preceding passages I mentioned, lead Alison to urge us to remember Jesus's appropriation of Hosea's aphorism: "Go and learn the meaning of this: 'It is mercy I desire, and not sacrifice.'" I don't think this is a condemnation of ritual per se, but a condemnation of ritual that is not surrounded by lived mercy. It may be a condemnation of substitutionary ritual of all kinds, where we use a sacrament or any kind of religious life or membership as a replacement for actually living as the daughters and sons of God with open doors in all our churches, homes, and hearts. It may be a condemnation of any pious strategy that pretends to be religion when at the same time it excludes, sets itself apart as better-than or holier-than, and forgets that it too is sinful and forgiven, once no people, now God's people, once aliens and strangers in a foreign land.

Let us learn the meaning of mercy together. Maybe what we need is the church "going to confession" to the world, and asking forgiveness for our fakeries. We know that God has done good through us, that God is still working on us to make a better world. But let's not open ritual holy doors and slam the doors that real people in need have asked us to open. Let's not celebrate receiving mercy that we're not willing to show to every other person in our life. Let's not pretend to be catholic when we imagine ourselves as exclusive, deserving of special privilege, or the gatekeepers of divine grace, knowing full well that if God wanted, stones, apes, and algae could be turned into catholics in the twinkling of an eye. With two weeks of Advent to go, we can make a good start. We can think about how we're not finished yet, that God is doing something with us, but that we need to try to stop resisting and opt into freedom and a good, healthy humanity, which is what the bible means by "salvation." If today's feast, the Immaculate Conception, teaches us anything, it's that we can't accomplish that without God, and God will not accomplish it without us. Like Jesus himself, salvation is pure gift. It's for everyone. No exceptions. And that's the only way it can be genuinely received, as part of everyone, no exceptions.

Good Lord. These are my second thoughts about last Sunday. I have to stop thinking, or there's no way we'll be ready for Christmas. You get bonus stars if you've read this far. Thanks for reading if you did. May God have mercy on us, and we, finally, intentionally, tenderly, on one another.

Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Advent joy of the gospel (C2A)

We have a priest who occasionally chides people in church for looking so glum. This used to bother me, but more recently, while still wishing it were a little more nuanced, I've taken to letting it slide instead of letting it get to me. I have to say, he himself does his best to bring his own kind of joyful energy to everything he does: he works hard, he goes to people when they need him, and doesn't ever try to avoid the late-night hospital call or wake duty like, it seems, priests in other local parishes do. And he does try to celebrate mass in his own style and communicate joy to others, so I can see why he would be hungry to see some of it come back to him. But we northern Illini are a hardy bunch, and I think we vainly try to fight off the cold and dark this time of year with an extra self-protective layer of gritty defensiveness which it's not easy to take off on Sunday morning. Why it's the same in the summertime is another question. Maybe it's the Cubs and the Sox. For now, I'm sticking with the anti-freeze exoskeleton excuse.

In the first reading Sunday, the prophet Baruch says, like our priest maybe, "Get up and dance, people. The worst is over." Something new is happening, God has intervened in our exile, and restoration is underway. God himself is leading your journey home, Baruch says, Emmanuel has arrived. I've mentioned in other posts, and I'm sure you've heard it as well, that sometimes these prophetic pieces sound like they were written in the Jerusalem Hilton by leisurely poets sipping on absinthe cocktails while they nosh on blintzes, but that is never the case. We have to imagine these words being spoken and written in a context not unlike a refugee settlement on the frontiers of western Europe, among people who are in a mess and far from home, but who have survived a long journey and have reason to hope that God is with them. This little piece of Baruch resonates with similar passages in Isaiah:
God has commanded
that every lofty mountain be made low,
and that the age-old depths and gorges
be filled to level ground,
that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.
In fact, Luke loosely quotes Isaiah 40 in the gospel today in verses that sound very much like Baruch. In both cases, Israel was in trouble and on the way out by way of divine rescue. Luke sees the Israel of the first century CE, and, in fact, all of history to follow, on the same path of rescue, through a wilderness path made safe and smooth by the Lord's command.


The psalm also looks to God's work in history as a reason to rejoice, again, because of deliverance from exile in Babylon, where the words of their own psalms died in their throats. "The Lord has done great things for us: we are filled with joy." Without a temple and without a crop to harvest, all the people of Israel have is one another, the covenant, and their future. Looking back, the joy of the good news of deliverance sustained them through the journey home, because it was a sign of God's presence with them—they had not been abandoned after all. Now, what lays ahead is the work of rebuilding, planting, and hoping for a joyful harvest. But they can have hope because of their experience of rescue. God has done great things for us, we are filled with joy. 

The letter to the Philippians is built around a text that gets to the very heart of what the incarnation and Advent are all about. Paul is aware of the ache in us, the knowledge that we're not right, that things are broken, and we're at sea about how that fits in with a benevolent God who cares about us and who promises to be with us. But he assures the Philippians and he assures us that "the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus." For Paul, we are partners in the good news, and the day of the Lord unfolds in us as we live lives in harmony with the life and word of Jesus, that God is for all, and that we are to act as children of God, sisters and brothers to one another.

St. Luke, having finished the infancy narrative that serves as (in Dominic Crossan's word) an "overture" to the rest of his gospel, sets the story that is to follow in a concrete time and place in history, with real emperors and kings, their real armies and real power, ruling in Rome and Jerusalem, while God delivers a word of rescue to a marginal preacher in the Judean wilderness. Something new is happening, and those who hear John, just like us, who know that something's not working, something's wrong with the normal way that civilization operates, begin to hear about it, and everyone is invited. John invites them to a baptism in the Jordan, invites them to wash off the old thoughts that keep them thinking that things have to be the same, and enter into God's imagination of freedom for all that comes from the promise. "Wash it all of in the Jordan, and come back into God's kingdom. Start living as the people God called you to be, and not like people without hope and a homeland." The "baptism of repentance" that John uses as a sign is a sign of metanoia, of complete turning around, away from one destination and toward another. Jesus will nuance repentance in an important way: God's love is not dependent upon our change, but enables our change, precedes it.

Today, in 2015, in America, we're tired and frightened. We know there's something wrong. In some ways, we're more like the empire than like the Judeans, but people in the empire know something is wrong too. What claims do we have for joy or hope in a nation whose would-be leaders try to outdo each other with outrageous claims of exceptionalism and exclusion of strangers? What are signs of this God's presence with us when children are shot in the streets and in schools, and we're inured to the pain by its constancy, and told by our leaders that these murders are the "price of freedom" enshrined in the constitution?

God is not in the guns and fences. Anything that smells like force or superiority or exceptionalism emanates from the gods of empire, little projections of our human penchant for scapegoating, retribution, and violence. Look away from the sources of empire, and listen to the voice in the wilderness. That voice says, "Cross over Jordan again. Wash off the filth of nationalism, hatred, and revenge. Enter into the peaceable kingdom of God, the promised land of mutuality, where there is enough for everyone. It's a long journey, but God will lower the mountains and raise the valleys for those who walk it together. Best of all, Jesus has walked the path ahead of us, God-with-us all the way." I think that's where the joy must be. It's where I want to go.

What we're singing this weekend:

Entrance: A Voice Cries Out (Joncas)
Sprinkling Rite: Your Mercy Like Rain (I think! We're going to do a sprinkling rite at the beginning of mass to announce the Year of Mercy in the parish in conjunction with the Cathedral and universal church. This just kind of came up, so I'm not sure about the music yet.)
Psalm 126: I Had a Dream (OCP)
Advent Gospel Acclamation (Joncas)
Presentation: Your Light Will Come, Jerusalem (Hurd)
Communion: The Wilderness Awaits You
Recessional: On Jordan's Bank (Or "Come, Emmanuel," Alonso)