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Wednesday, December 17, 2014

Fiat (B4A)

There is a pattern to the gospels of the four Advent Sundays that is followed in all three cycles. The first Sunday is generally focused on an apocalyptic proclamation from late in the ministry of Jesus, a way of making clear at the outset of Advent that things aren’t finished yet, in spite of our conviction that somehow Jesus is the once-and-for-all savior, the unique incarnate Son of God. The first Sunday of Advent seems to caution us each year not to think that Christmas is a feast for waiting for the birth of a Messiah who is, in fact, already present. It’s more like a warning not to miss that presence this time around, as the outcome of our heedlessness will be bad news for everyone concerned. This will not be a divine punishment, but the natural consequence of idolatry: wrong god = negative outcome. The second and third Sundays introduce the character of John the Baptizer, who is at the margin of civilization, that energy that is a force for order by means of threat, hire, violence, trickle-down economics and, rarely, altruism. John is the “voice in the wilderness,” telling us to pay attention to what’s happening to us, to turn away from our idols and wash off the old empire in the holy river, and to start acting with justice and integrity.

The fourth Sunday introduces the main characters in the events of the “first” incarnation - notably Mary in years B and C, and Joseph in year A. In this year, year B, we hear the story of the Annunciation in Luke, which we heard two weeks ago on the feast of the Immaculate Conception (footnote: the annunciation, contrary to what was actually preached at an all school mass at St. Anne once upon a time, is not the immaculate conception, which is not a scriptural event. But that’s neither here nor there. The immaculate conception refers to the conception of the Blessed Mother being without original sin; the feast is on December 8, 9 months before her birthday, September 8. The annunciation is about the conception of Jesus; its feast is March 25, nine months before the feast of Christmas. Isn’t it nice how all the math works out?)

Mary’s response to Gabriel in the Vulgate, preserved in Christian prayer in the Angelus, has become a synonym for any top-down decision in business or government. Fiat mihi secundum verbum tuum: let it be done to me according to your word, has been shortened to “fiat”, let it be done, in our jargon. “Make it so,” as Jean-Luc Picard would say. But this “fiat” is anything but an expression of power and strength in the way we ordinarily think of power and strength. It is an act of surrender. It is an act of divinity, an alignment with the will of an invisible God who is leaping from heaven in order to be one with humanity. It can thus be seen as an act of power, but one has to redefine power as whatever God does, including this kenosis, this love that is so perfect and intense that it pours itself out for the life of the other. 

This is the same covenant love expressed to Moses when God reveals the divine name, represented in the Hebrew Scriptures by the tetragram YHWH and never said aloud. But the rabbis taught that the name might be God’s way of saying “who I am, I am for you,” an expression of the covenant, still revealing its meaning to us after three and half millennia, by which God shows solidarity with us who are not God.

Coming out the mouth of an unmarried young woman in a patriarchal society, in a country that has been at best a vassal state to Egypt, Greece, and Rome for three centuries, and a strategic outpost for every major power in the Middle East for six hundred years before that, Mary’s “fiat” is a word of faith in the exodus that explodes into the Magnificat, in which she celebrates a God who “casts the mighty from their thrones and raises the lowly to high places,” who “fills up the poor with good things, and sends the rich away empty.” It is a word of alignment with the empire that is not like that of this world, but is nevertheless a word of sedition and heresy, rejecting an emperor and a corrupt temple, and already forming the conscience of the man about to take shape in her womb.

So it’s little wonder that the first reading recounts the story of the covenant with David, the first great king of Israel, and that the psalm continues that thread. The whole Davidic king thing didn’t work out so well, either for Israel or for God, but it showed both God and Israel what is really important: solidarity, community, hope. The emergence of Jesus amid all that God and Israel learned together from centuries of dominance by Persia, Babylon, Greece, Egypt, the Hasmoneans, and now Rome, becomes the story for the rest of the Bible, and is the story for us. There is a different empire now. Whoever wants to be the king has to serve everyone else. Being God means being the greatest servant of all, the one who is poured out completely. That looks, to us who are enamored of power, our kind of life, and wealth, for all the world like death. But its incarnation, right before our eyes, is a pregnant woman about to undertake an arduous journey that will fill up songbooks as long as people sing. 
Here’s our lineup of music for Advent 4 at St. Anne’s:

Gathering: O Come, O Come Emmanuel
Psalm 89: Forever I Will Sing (Cooney, OCP)

Preparation Rite: Say the Word (Cooney, GIA) or No Wind at the Window
Communion: I Say Yes, My Lord

Closing: Canticle of the Turning

Mary said, “Behold, I am the handmaid of the Lord.

May it be done to me according to your word.”

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