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Thursday, December 8, 2016

Second Thoughts: Second Advent

Looking back over last Sunday's readings, or rather, recalling what I was hearing over and over on Sunday, I realize that I was hearing echoes from the news, from social media, and from my own reflections over the past weeks when I had been pretty intensely preparing for some Advent presentations I did in the parish and elsewhere.

To me, the thing about Advent is that it's about preparing for Christmas. So somehow we ought to be thinking about what that means: preparing for Christmas. The General Norms for the Liturgical Year says there's a dual purpose to Advent, one, looking backward to Jesus's coming in history, and one looking forward to his coming at the end of time (#39). As I thought about that, it made me remember that, from God's perspective, those are the same thing. Along with those "two" approaches, or advents, there's also the approach of Jesus in the poor and needy, in all people's times of darkness, grief, and loss, and also the approach of Jesus in those who answer the call to participate in God's mission of reconciling the world. Also the approach of Jesus in the sacramental life of the Church, the ritual making-present of the saving life of God in baptism, confirmation, Eucharist, and the other sacraments and the people of the Church as well. All of that is God approaching us, bigger than we can imagine. Well, not bigger exactly, but vastly different from what we can imagine. Other than we can imagine. So much so that theologian James Alison describes the experience of encounter with God as a realization of the "concavity" created by God's approach, in that maybe we can't actually ever experience God directly, but sort of recognize God's "footprint," or the dent God leaves in reality, perhaps like Moses, who so wanted to see God as God truly is, and was only allowed to see God's arse ("hindquarters") after God passed by. And that made me think of the beginning of the letter to the Hebrews, which happens to the be second reading for the Christmas Mass during the Day, which a lot of us will never hear because of Linus van Pelt and the midnight mass readings:
Brothers and sisters:
In times past, God spoke in partial and various ways
to our ancestors through the prophets;
in these last days, he has spoken to us through the 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.
So preparing for Christmas means preparing to celebrate this Christ, this human being who is the very "imprint of (God's) being," the visible sign of the invisible God. We only know this God through this Jesus, who is the refulgence of God's glory, the flash of a lightning strike. It's that God whom we come to know through this Jesus, for whom we have to prepare.

Sunday's gospel introduced John the Baptizer in the desert, so introduces us pretty much without our realizing it to the adult Jesus, who meets John at the Jordan, and to whom John sends envoys in next Sunday's gospel when he (John) is in prison. John and Jesus have a similar sounding message. John says, "Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand," while Jesus will add, "believe the good news" when he takes up John's cry after Herod kills the Baptizer. What's the same about their proclamation is that both understand that things are wrong (this is not a revelation to anyone, we all know this!) and that those who believe in the God of Israel have to change direction (i.e., repent, metanoeite) and live a different kind of life from everyone else. The difference in their proclamation is what they understand God to be like. For John, "the ax is laid at the root of the tree," and there is "wrath to come" from which no evil can escape. John's approaching God is the god of wrath and vengeance, who will sweep the chaff from the floor and burn it in everlasting fire. John's messiah is the Terminator, who will bring God's judgment on the earth. For Jesus, on the other hand, God's judgment on the earth is mercy. Jesus is, in fact, God's judgment on the earth. For Jesus, God is abba, the householder of all, and what God wants is peace in the whole house among all God's children. When Jesus says, "Follow me," he wants to show us how that is done. Lesson one will be the Sermon on the Mount.

So for me, this past Sunday, as I looked forward to the Christ of Christmas and the Jesus of the gospel of St. Matthew, what I kept hearing was that word "Gentiles" which appears in the first reading, the psalm, the second reading, and is understood by contrast in the gospel when John reproaches the Pharisees and Sadducees for imagining that it is enough to be "sons of Abraham" to achieve God's favor.

First, Isaiah, out of the chaos of political defeat and captivity, describes the reign of God as ruled by someone who will be like God, that is, who, filled with God's own breath (life/spirit) will decide for the poor and afflicted. The reign of God will be characterized by non-violence among all living things, natural enemies will forego fighting, prey and predator will play together. The dangerous and endangered will be reconciled, says Isaiah, and after setting up the resolution of those natural dialectics, Isaiah dares to announce the end of an historical one: the difference between the chosen (Jews) and the nations (Gentiles, non-Jews).
On that day, the root of Jesse,
set up as a signal for the nations,
the Gentiles shall seek out,
for his dwelling shall be glorious.
Psalm 72, a coronation liturgy, goes on to suggest that the ascending regent will also be like God, for it prays that God will "with your justice endow the king, and with your judgment the king's son," i.e., the ascending monarch. This means that he "will rescue the poor when they cry out, and the afflicted when there is no one to help them." And "he shall have pity on the lowly and poor, and save their lives." But the psalm sees a dominion "from the river (the Euphrates, the east) to the ends of the earth (i.e., the coast of Spain, the west)," and a procession in which all the kings of earth will participate. In other words, the dominion of peace and justice is worldwide. Everyone is included.

Paul's letter to the Romans is addressed to a community whom he has not met yet but which he intends to visit as soon as he makes a trip to Jerusalem with alms from the Greek churches. He has heard that some of the same problems are arising there between the Jewish Christian and the Gentile Christians, specifically, that some Jewish Christians acting on their own authority and understanding of the gospel are teaching that Gentiles must become Jews (i.e., be circumcised and follow Mosaic food traditions) before they can be baptized. St. Paul, himself a Jewish Christian, uses all of his persuasive powers and knowledge of the law and the prophets to convince them otherwise. In this passage from the beginning of the letter, Paul is telling them that the whole purpose of Christ coming into the world was to demonstrate God's love for all and God's desire that both Jews and Gentiles are part of the divine family, Jews by birth, and Gentiles by adoption, Jews by the "promise" (i.e., the covenant) and Gentiles by God's mercy. This is a really big God, Paul is trying to say, widening the promise to include everyone in Christ. Paul wants this insight to produce "harmony" and "accord" in the community, urging them to "welcome one another for the glory of God" because of it.

So when John the Baptizer turns on the Jewish leadership in his baptism exhortation, he's saying to them, "You can't just say 'we're in because of Abraham' any more. You have to change too. God can make children of Abraham out of the rocks we're standing on." Everybody, everybody, has to acknowledge their sins and then "cross the Jordan" again into the promised land through baptism, remembering and acting on the memory of the God who brought them through that water the first time. There's been too much accommodation to Caesar, John is saying. We need to remember who the real God is, the one who led us through the Red Sea, out of captivity into freedom. We need to claim our freedom. When John says that no one can claim to be "in" because of being Jewish alone (i.e., "children of Abraham,") he's saying, in effect, "In the kingdom of heaven, no one can say 'I'm in, you're out.'" That's because the kingdom of heaven, which means earth, when God is in charge, is God's dominion, and everyone belongs.

I suppose I should try to sum up these thoughts somehow. It was pretty simple when I was thinking about it, but it all gets expanded in the "big picture" of Advent, which is about preparing for Christmas. To prepare for Christmas is to prepare for Christ, who reveals to us a specific God. This is a God, the second Sunday of Advent says to me, who doesn't let me live in a religious bubble, but who keeps reminding me that I'm only as close to God as I'm close to the person I like the least. This is not a god of retribution and war, but a God of distribution and peace, of utter justice (everyone should have enough to be happy and make others happy) and fullness of peace (there is no envy for what others have, but only joy that all have enough.) Whenever faith gets to a place where it suggests that some are in, some share God's favor, and others don't, and it really doesn't matter what the criterion for judgment is, then that religion has pitched its tent outside of the reign of God. That's probably enough for one Sunday.

Finally, the vision of Isaiah of the "peaceable kingdom" is not an optimistic vision or an idealized vision of world that is truly in chaos. The vision of the peaceable kingdom is the way things actually are, only a decision away. The road to the peaceable kingdom is being prepared by God through the wilderness, with God himself in the lead, perhaps as a little child, perhaps as an itinerant rabbi, perhaps as a population in desperate need of food, water, education or freedom, perhaps as a capital criminal nailed to a cross. This God sees that we've been captivated by other gods, other emperors, who want to make things better for our country, or another country, or our fellow rich people, or people who think like us, with their catechisms of violence, seizure, and the rule of power and money. But it is the God of blossoming justice and profound peace who is drawing near all the time, from inside of us, from outside of us, denting our broken reality with unrelenting love, inviting love, and being present to us from inside the darkness we create by building our houses and empires of false happiness on the misery, captivity, and desperation of others. It is this God whom we long for, whom we await, whom we prepare for at Christmas, the Christmas written on the calendar of every cell, of every photon and particle of matter in the universe. It is this approaching, inviting, abba-God who is drawing near to us again and again and again in Christ, and with a light that darkness cannot extinguish, shows us the way forward with the words, "Follow me."