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Thursday, December 11, 2014

Gaudete in Tenebris - Advent in 2012

I uncovered a few notes from Gaudete Sunday in 2012. In that year, you may recall, a young man named Adam Lanza shot over two dozen people to death, including twenty children, at Sandy Hook Elementary School. It was a Friday morning. That Sunday would be the third Sunday of Advent, "Rejoice" Sunday. This year, Gaudete Sunday marks the 2nd anniversary of that tragedy.

I'm posting these notes and bringing all this up again because nothing really changes. Life is hard and people are dying senselessly in 2014, and to voters in this country it's almost as though nothing happened. To Christians in this country, it seems to be more guns, and more people having access to guns, that will save us, and not Christ and the Sermon on the Mount instructions to love our enemies, do good to those who hate us, and the whole trajectory of non-violence that is in the gospels.

But life was hard in biblical times, too. The advent texts in Isaiah and the prophets that we love so much were conceived in times of treacherous leadership in Israel and Judah, in the crucible of siege and war, and in the disconnected horror that was the Babylonian exile. Life was violent and unpredictable then, too, and yet out of those days and times arose these texts we love and pray and sing two and a half millennia later, words about lions and lambs playing together, people beating swords into plow blades, and never again learning the art of killing each other.

Anyway, my pastor asked me, between the morning of the tragedy and Sunday, to write down any thoughts I had to see if any of it would help our homilists that weekend, so I did, and I uncovered those notes. I read them in the context of the violence in Africa, the kidnappings by Boko Naram in Nigeria, the torture report in the Senate, the beheadings of western charity workers, teachers, and journalists by Islamists in and around Syria, and the violence on the streets of the United States visited upon people of color by police agencies, and the resulting explosion of senseless violence, looting, and the destruction of property that has ensued.

I don't want to pretend I know anything more than anyone else, so I'm not going to edit my comments from 2012. I would probably nuance language here and there and it might make me sound more "together" or some other artificial thing, but instead, this is just what I wrote to him. Mostly, it's still what I think, and it seems really just as fitting today as it was in 2012, mutatis mutandis.
Here are a few random thoughts I've had, if any of it helps. I need to start by saying what I'll end by saying - I don't see any meaning in this tragedy. But it's not an isolated event. People aren't helpless against this. We all have choices to make about violence and the way we live. The gospel and liturgy are all about this. We can't have it both ways, though, choosing violence AND "merry Christmas." At least we in the church can't.  
1. Advent - the central question, the heart of advent, it seems to me, is always the unfinished business down here. If Jesus came to bring the reign of God, why isn't it here yet? If God is God, why the inequality and suffering? In all the scriptures today, the world was a mess, especially for the people doing the writing. We need to keep that in mind. It wasn't better for any of them - it was worse. And yet our hope derives from their hope. Look at the words of "O Come, O Come, Emmanuel" - they express lamentation, exile, disunity, and yet the refrain repeats "rejoice, rejoice" - because hope -meaning- will come. We just can't predict when or how. We can just be faithful. 
2. The Christmas story is the Easter story - the paschal mystery - as prelude to the rest of the gospel. To me, it's dealing with the fundamental choice between the reign of God and the reign of "this world," of emperors and kings and constitutions. This world organizes itself by violence and threats of violence. The reign of God is organized by the Holy Spirit, by addressing needs with gifts, the sharing of life. The gospel never says that Augustus or Tiberias or Pilate or Herod don't have power. It challenges who they say they are - god, son of god, prince of peace, by offering Jesus as a different king not like the kings of this world. In the nativity story, the power of the empire to do violence is seen in the story of the holy innocents, and the power of God to save in the story of the flight into Egypt. Modern people eventually have to choose between the empires, too. For instance, between the power of the constitution to protect them and give them real life, and the power of God to give them real life. It's always about real death and real life. Can we have real life by violence and threats of violence? Or is it only by peace, self-gift, and vulnerability that fullness of life for everyone can be attained? 
3. So the liturgy is already about meaning, death, and resurrection. The eucharist is about solidarity and life-sharing around the table that is a sign of solidarity and life-sharing in the world. It's a sign that people are at least making the effort to turn away from sin (the kingdoms of "this world") and believe in the good news (the reign of God, in this world.) My sense is that, if the liturgy fails to be about this for people and for us, it's because we've trivialized and spiritualized it for so long that it doesn't have the power it should have.  
4. After all is said and done, we're left with this meaningless slaughter and mired in grief and bewilderment on a Sunday called Gaudete. But no believer ever had it easy. Belief for the prophets, apostles, and faithful of Israel and the apostolic community was never a party. It was always about hope in the midst of darkness and the possibility of despair. Zephaniah, Paul, and the Luke community all had to deal with God's absence, persecution, rejection, and danger. But their hope was in either the God of the exodus or the God who raised Jesus from the dead that being a people ultimately was stronger and more meaningful than the persecutor or occupying empire. 
5. I don't think we can make sense of this now. Those murdered children aren't "angels" that God needed (ugh), but we trust that God somehow surrounds them and has a plan for them and for us that he will attain not by revenge and violence but through peace and invitation. The mantra in the gospel today is "what can we do (to prepare for the Messiah)?" The answer is always to act with patience, charity, and God's justice. Be our best selves, look out for the other person. Meaning will start to emerge from the chaos as we do these things. But society/empire will always fight back, as it did against Jesus. We have to be aware of that. That's what "take up your cross" means. 
I will write a better, longer (but not long) concluding prayer for the intercessions. I'm not going to do it now, I want to have the OCF as a resource. I think you should mention the children and teachers who were murdered in the eucharistic prayer when the dead are mentioned. It will also give me the morning to consult with a few colleagues and see if any of them have better insight about this than I do. I hope they do.
I wish I could do better for you and for everyone at St Anne's. I don't think I can serve them better by not telling them the truth. Since I don't know the truth beyond my experience and modest faith, I feel fewer words are better, avoiding platitudes, false comfort, scapegoating, and all the strategies of false religion.
Here's the introduction I wrote to the mass for Gaudete Sunday that year, or to the penitential rite:
How difficult it is today to hear Paul’s words: Rejoice in the Lord, always, I say it again, Rejoice! What joy can come to us on this day, so near the tragedy in Newtown? Yet, rejoice we must, because hope insists on the advent message: the Lord is near. What puts the “good” in “good news” is the presence of God, especially with those most in need of God’s appearance. Let us be grateful for this good news on this “Gaudete” Sunday, and rejoice in the Lord’s mercy, which is ever near.  
Here is a prayer for the end of the intercessions (prayer of the faithful), based on 399:1 and 398:43 in the Order of Christian Funerals.
Father of mercies and God of all consolation,
You dispel the shadow of death with the bright dawn of life.
Comfort your people in our loss and sorrow,
lift us from our grief into the peace and light of your presence.
So many this week were taken quickly and violently from us, young and unguarded,
they are suddenly gone from our sight, and from their homes and families.
Come swiftly to their aid, bring them to you,
and flood their families with comfort and signs of your presence.
By dying, Jesus destroyed our death,
by rising, he restored our life.
Enable us to press on toward the celebration of his birth in joyful hope,
that one day we may gather with all whom you love,
where every tear will be wiped away, and death will be no more.
May your kingdom come.
We ask this through Christ our Lord.
I guess there's no end to this post. It's just a question. Where do we get the heart to rejoice in the face of such horror, day in and day out?

The liturgy seems to say, Rejoice because God is doing it. God is making something happen. "The one who calls you is faithful, and he will also accomplish it," says St. Paul. Isaiah rejoices in the mission God gives to bring joy where there is none, because "as the earth brings forth its plants, and a garden makes its growth spring up, so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise spring up before all the nations." It's not us, it's God's work, and we need to figure out a way to get with it. As Dominic Crossan says, and I love to remember this, "We can't do it without God, and God won't do it without us." Salvation, whatever that means, is by participation. That's the meaning of Matthew 25: 31-48 too.

Pete Seeger had a similar insight, and being a performing musician, that was the metaphor he keyed in on: "I've never sung anywhere without giving the people listening to me a chance to join in. As a kid, as a lefty, as a man touring the U.S.A. and the world, as an oldster. I guess it's kind of a religion with me. Participation. That's what's going to save the human race."

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