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Monday, October 27, 2014

"You shall not oppress an alien" (A30O)

Sometimes, scripture is just so fresh that it seems ripped out of the newspaper. I sometimes tell the story, when we’re doing a concert, about writing “Walk in the Reign” for Advent in 1989, which like last Advent (2013) was the doorway to a Matthew (cycle A) year. For this late baby-boomer, it was a time of unparalleled renewal in the world. Things were happening constantly that none of us ever thought we’d see: the Berlin Wall coming down, the crumbling of the Soviet empire in Eastern Europe precipitated by the solidarity movement in Poland of Lech Walesa and the Gdansk dockworkers, the release of Nelson Mandela from prison and the dismantling of apartheid in South Africa, and the miraculous, almost unthinkably courageous witness of the students who stood up to the tanks in Tienanmen Square. These were events of biblical proportion to us who had grown up in the Cold War, practicing air raid drills for nuclear attacks by hiding under our desks in school. Reading Isaiah in preparation for Advent that year was like reading it for the first time. It was not a perfect world by any means at all, but when we considered “what we had seen and heard,” the total of our recent experience was that there were indeed signs of the inbreaking reign of God all around us.

That’s what it was like hearing the first reading from Deuteronomy proclaimed. I wondered if the chaplain to Congress had dared to read that passage to our “Christian” legislators at the height of the immigration controversy, when the border wall was being considered, and the deportation machine started to crank at full power. Could we think it was possible to destroy the families and hope we destroyed without so much as a “May God have mercy on our souls” if we had had someone reading words like we heard today?
Thus says the LORD:
"You shall not molest or oppress an alien,
for you were once aliens yourselves in the land of Egypt. 
You shall not wrong any widow or orphan. 
If ever you wrong them and they cry out to me,
 I will surely hear their cry. 
My wrath will flare up, and I will kill you with the sword; 
then your own wives will be widows, and your children orphans.

I don’t always wince at the God of the Jewish scriptures, but for all the tenderness and compassion, there's a lot of violence in there. On the other hand, one can see how retribution in the form of violence can be perceived in retrospect as the punitive hand of God, when in fact it was the hellish outcome of their own bad choices, or the bad luck to be on the road between competing empires. The reason we shouldn’t molest or oppress an alien? Because “you yourselves were once aliens,” and God doesn’t mean us personally, but our ancestors. It’s “do unto others” writ large across generations, and we might think that it’s written into the future, too, about the way we treat the earth, and why we ought to pay attention to the environment, global warming, and so on.

Then there’s that whole second paragraph about charging interest to people who need money, acting like “extortioners.” In the middle of this global financial crisis, again, without proof-texting or expecting a Nostradamus-like prognostication, we certainly could feel the heat of the word of the Lord blowing over the wasteland of our financial practice, bloating portfolios with shadows and mirrors on the one hand, and charging high-interest loans to developing nations in need of cash for survival. It seems, on the one hand, easy to say, “That was then, this is now,” but the principles still hold. “This is what it means to love the Lord your God, with heart, soul, mind, and money. Treat each other with respect and dignity, because the other is as much beloved of God as you.”

Two liturgical issues may reflect some of these thoughts. One is the proposal that was made by some bishops a few years ago, mostly those who are concerned about “reverence” for the Eucharist, to move the Kiss of Peace to another part of the Mass from right before communion. The common excuse given for this relocation is that it makes the kiss of  peace, which is a sign of solidarity, forgiveness, and agape a response to hearing and celebrating the word of God before coming to the table, in obedience to Mt 5:24. OK so far. But there is also the weight of tradition, the ancient practice of the Church in placing the rite immediately before sharing the Eucharist itself.  This is a moment of great intimacy in the community, a moment of shared presence. There is a long history placing it in the context of the communion rite. Giving the kiss of peace consciously and intentionally during the communion rite is a beautiful and significant action. Moving it to after the homily, and not becoming aware of its significance, making it, as some call it, a “greeting” rather than an expression of solidarity and covenant in Christ, might lead to atrophy and ultimately nonsignification.

The other change was the options the new missal added to the dismissal rite. At the 2005 Synod on the Eucharist, some bishops thought that the dismissal was not clear in its dynamic, that to “go in peace to love and serve the Lord” meant “go and rest.” Therefore, these bishops want the dismissal to be clearer that the dismissal is a dismissal to act, to go and serve, as today’s gospel says, to love God by loving neighbor. Dismissal is for mission. The new texts say it this way:

Along with "Ite, missa est," the Latin phrase now translated as "The Mass is ended, go in peace," the new options are:

"Ite ad Evangelium Domini annuntiandum" (Go and announce the Gospel of the Lord).

"Ite in pace, glorificando vita vestra Dominum" (Go in peace, glorifying the Lord by your life).

"Ite in pace" (Go in peace).

These were good additions, and my understanding is that Pope Benedict himself had a hand in crafting them. The tautology implied by the current rage, “Go in peace to serve the Lord and one another,” as though they were two different things, has disappeared. Today's gospel makes it clear that it is not possible to do one without the other.

I hope that some of the homilies you heard woke you up to the fresh realities in today's scripture. It might take us three and a half millennia to accept that loving our neighbor means not oppressing aliens, overcharging interest, and ignoring the needs of the poor, of widows, and of orphans, but ask any alien, widow, or orphan: better late than never.

Talk to you again soon. Tonight I'm meeting up with Fr. Roc O'Connor, SJ, of the St. Louis Jesuits. Roc is now at the Gesu church on the campus of Marquette, and I took advantage of his proximity to lure him down to Barrington to give my choir and friends an evening of recollection instead of choir this week. Lots of preparations are underway at home for the trip Terry, Gary, and I are taking west to the BILAC conference in Honolulu next week. With workshops to prepare and all my St. Anne work to do in advance, you may not see much of me here, though I have a few little things in store to reprise from past postings which might be fun to look at again, in case you missed them. But I will be back, and will stay in touch in the meantime as best I can.

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