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Wednesday, December 3, 2014

Listening for good news in a bad news world—Advent 2, Year B

“Advent” is from a Latin compound verb advenire, which means “to draw near” or “to approach”. The past participle of such a verb, a verb which you might say leans toward the future, is even more complex, sort of Einsteinian in its vision of approach as accomplished, yet still approach. It’s perfect, even if I am overstating it a little bit. The readings for this Sunday capture this longing for God’s approach perfectly, because that’s the human condition. We’re desperately aware, most of us, that we’re in dire straits, that the world is a place of uncertainty, insecurity, and violence. The strategy of civilization itself is to achieve equilibrium by vectors of violence, compromise, and various forms of anesthesia. For some of us, like the Israel of Isaiah or John the Baptist, or the Christians being addressed by the author of Second Peter, the threat to survival is real. Hunger, panic, persecution and harassment, these are the daily experience of many in the world even today. The strategy of the herald of good news is to tell the people to cling to the promise, to remember their story, because it’s a story of victory, even though it’s not a story of conquest and physical might. This might seem, to some, as just an opiate, urging folks to get through this life for the hope of a better life in another world. Only the heralds of scripture are convinced that God’s presence is near, is adventus, in this world, if we look for the signs of its arrival.

Now, as terrible as it is to have to admit this, we Christians have had two thousand years to be turning things around, and while baby steps have been made here and there, we’ve been a part of unspeakable violence and murder. Certainly there’s little doubt that the greatest blot on mankind in recent memory, the Holocaust, was perpetrated by a largely Christian nation upon the Jewish people. Let’s just admit that, and admit the complicity of indifference that did not confront the evil until it was too late. Similarly, the genocides of native peoples of the Americas by European settlers was rationalized by a strategy of christianization; the genocides of the Balkans and even of Rwanda were acts of Christians against Muslims in the one case and members of another tribal group in the latter case. We’ve given out as much as we’ve received, that much is clear. Nationalism has created thicker bonds between us than baptismal water, and it is a lie, because there is no bond deeper than the baptismal bond. I myself have been too often silenced by the proclamation that I only have the freedom I have to disagree with, in my case, “the American way” because others have fought and died for that freedom. Now I’m beginning to see that that’s a lie, that is civilization's way of keeping itself going by continuing to reject the God of life, the one who sometimes leads a ragtag band across the desert from exile to start over, the God who joins the race as a member of a dominated culture, and dies by capital punishment at the hands of imperial power. We need to rethink this violence of preservation, or else give up our self-designation as a “Christian” nation.

Remember Christiane Amanpour’s ongoing articles on signs of hope in areas of the world where there have been epidemics of genocide? We slowly come to know the horrors of these things through the truth and reconciliation committees in place in so many locations. Brave witnesses and even victims come forward to tell the truth. They expose for us the ugly truth that counterfeit communities of “in groups” form in these genocidal situations, and that previously normal neighbors who had worked together and intermarried become murderous thugs, torturers, and rapists. These counterfeit communities, like street gangs in cities all over the world, are doing for evil and the dehumanization of the planet the very opposite of what true religion is for, that is, to bind people together in communities of mutuality and respect. Today as in the days of Isaiah, John the Baptizer, and the persecutions of Christians by the Roman empire, there are forces in the world that seek to victimize and scapegoat groups of outsiders. There are strategies of grace at work in these horrible conditions. There are heralds of good news in every walk of life, bringing life to places that are full of death and horror, making the path straight for the return of God’s people.

Natalie Dubose, Ferguson bakeshop owner
We like to see strategies of grace close to home, too, like Brad Pitt's “making it right” project in New Orleans, building 100 homes a year to allow people to come back and have a place to live, after they were abandoned by their government in the wake of the hurricane there. After the riots in Ferguson MO a couple of weeks ago, community members came forward quickly to asser the values of solidarity and reparation, working to re-enfranchise local businesses. Artists turned out in dozens to decorate the boarded-up windows of riot-damaged restaurants on South Grand while their owners reopened behind those same boarded-up windows in 24 or 48 hours. (Pictures here. Check out the messages in the art, and lines like, "Pay what you can.") That’s a strategy of grace. Even closer to home, right in my parish, I see already overworked suburban families reaching out to our sharing parish, to our food pantries, to the poor in the area through Project Hope, even to a mission in the Congo. This kind of work helps reinforce baptismal bonds among us in the Holy Spirit, bonds that made us the body of Christ, and bonds that need to be strengthened to stand up to the assault of the call to violence and sectarianism that echo even to our little suburb in northern Illinois.

So we sing this weekend the words of Psalm 85: Lord, let us see your kindness! Grant us your salvation. Put the accent on “us” when you pray it. In other words, we know you save, God. We know you are kind. Let us see it. In my paraphrase we’re using at St. Anne’s, I put it even more explicitly in the refrain:

Let me taste your mercy like rain on my face.

Here, in my life, show me your peace.

Let us see with our own eyes your day burning bright.

Come, O Morning. Come, O Light.

Here’s the rest of our music for the weekend:

Gathering: Come to Us, O Emmanuel (Haugen, GIA)
Psalm 85: Your Mercy Like Rain (Cooney) The link goes to the "Songstories" post on this blog about "Your Mercy Like Rain," which has a SoundCloud excerpt embedded. Give it an audition, if you haven't heard it before. Mysteriously, it disappeared from Gather between versions 1 and 2. Sigh.
Preparation Rite: Come, O Lord (Damean Music, GIA)
Communion: The Wilderness Awaits You (Cooney, GIA)
 This also links to the appropriate "Songstories" post about "Wilderness," which is, as I see it, one of my best songs.
Closing: On Jordan’s Bank (traditional, #321 in Gather). As an option at the Sunday night mass where the teens participate, we’ll be using Come, Emmanuel by Tony Alonso, his litanic and upbeat adaptation of the plainsong hymn.

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