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Thursday, December 3, 2015

The Advent joy of the gospel (C2A)

We have a priest who occasionally chides people in church for looking so glum. This used to bother me, but more recently, while still wishing it were a little more nuanced, I've taken to letting it slide instead of letting it get to me. I have to say, he himself does his best to bring his own kind of joyful energy to everything he does: he works hard, he goes to people when they need him, and doesn't ever try to avoid the late-night hospital call or wake duty like, it seems, priests in other local parishes do. And he does try to celebrate mass in his own style and communicate joy to others, so I can see why he would be hungry to see some of it come back to him. But we northern Illini are a hardy bunch, and I think we vainly try to fight off the cold and dark this time of year with an extra self-protective layer of gritty defensiveness which it's not easy to take off on Sunday morning. Why it's the same in the summertime is another question. Maybe it's the Cubs and the Sox. For now, I'm sticking with the anti-freeze exoskeleton excuse.

In the first reading Sunday, the prophet Baruch says, like our priest maybe, "Get up and dance, people. The worst is over." Something new is happening, God has intervened in our exile, and restoration is underway. God himself is leading your journey home, Baruch says, Emmanuel has arrived. I've mentioned in other posts, and I'm sure you've heard it as well, that sometimes these prophetic pieces sound like they were written in the Jerusalem Hilton by leisurely poets sipping on absinthe cocktails while they nosh on blintzes, but that is never the case. We have to imagine these words being spoken and written in a context not unlike a refugee settlement on the frontiers of western Europe, among people who are in a mess and far from home, but who have survived a long journey and have reason to hope that God is with them. This little piece of Baruch resonates with similar passages in Isaiah:
God has commanded
that every lofty mountain be made low,
and that the age-old depths and gorges
be filled to level ground,
that Israel may advance secure in the glory of God.
In fact, Luke loosely quotes Isaiah 40 in the gospel today in verses that sound very much like Baruch. In both cases, Israel was in trouble and on the way out by way of divine rescue. Luke sees the Israel of the first century CE, and, in fact, all of history to follow, on the same path of rescue, through a wilderness path made safe and smooth by the Lord's command.

The psalm also looks to God's work in history as a reason to rejoice, again, because of deliverance from exile in Babylon, where the words of their own psalms died in their throats. "The Lord has done great things for us: we are filled with joy." Without a temple and without a crop to harvest, all the people of Israel have is one another, the covenant, and their future. Looking back, the joy of the good news of deliverance sustained them through the journey home, because it was a sign of God's presence with them—they had not been abandoned after all. Now, what lays ahead is the work of rebuilding, planting, and hoping for a joyful harvest. But they can have hope because of their experience of rescue. God has done great things for us, we are filled with joy. 

The letter to the Philippians is built around a text that gets to the very heart of what the incarnation and Advent are all about. Paul is aware of the ache in us, the knowledge that we're not right, that things are broken, and we're at sea about how that fits in with a benevolent God who cares about us and who promises to be with us. But he assures the Philippians and he assures us that "the one who began a good work in you will continue to complete it until the day of Christ Jesus." For Paul, we are partners in the good news, and the day of the Lord unfolds in us as we live lives in harmony with the life and word of Jesus, that God is for all, and that we are to act as children of God, sisters and brothers to one another.

St. Luke, having finished the infancy narrative that serves as (in Dominic Crossan's word) an "overture" to the rest of his gospel, sets the story that is to follow in a concrete time and place in history, with real emperors and kings, their real armies and real power, ruling in Rome and Jerusalem, while God delivers a word of rescue to a marginal preacher in the Judean wilderness. Something new is happening, and those who hear John, just like us, who know that something's not working, something's wrong with the normal way that civilization operates, begin to hear about it, and everyone is invited. John invites them to a baptism in the Jordan, invites them to wash off the old thoughts that keep them thinking that things have to be the same, and enter into God's imagination of freedom for all that comes from the promise. "Wash it all of in the Jordan, and come back into God's kingdom. Start living as the people God called you to be, and not like people without hope and a homeland." The "baptism of repentance" that John uses as a sign is a sign of metanoia, of complete turning around, away from one destination and toward another. Jesus will nuance repentance in an important way: God's love is not dependent upon our change, but enables our change, precedes it.

Today, in 2015, in America, we're tired and frightened. We know there's something wrong. In some ways, we're more like the empire than like the Judeans, but people in the empire know something is wrong too. What claims do we have for joy or hope in a nation whose would-be leaders try to outdo each other with outrageous claims of exceptionalism and exclusion of strangers? What are signs of this God's presence with us when children are shot in the streets and in schools, and we're inured to the pain by its constancy, and told by our leaders that these murders are the "price of freedom" enshrined in the constitution?

God is not in the guns and fences. Anything that smells like force or superiority or exceptionalism emanates from the gods of empire, little projections of our human penchant for scapegoating, retribution, and violence. Look away from the sources of empire, and listen to the voice in the wilderness. That voice says, "Cross over Jordan again. Wash off the filth of nationalism, hatred, and revenge. Enter into the peaceable kingdom of God, the promised land of mutuality, where there is enough for everyone. It's a long journey, but God will lower the mountains and raise the valleys for those who walk it together. Best of all, Jesus has walked the path ahead of us, God-with-us all the way." I think that's where the joy must be. It's where I want to go.

What we're singing this weekend:

Entrance: A Voice Cries Out (Joncas)
Sprinkling Rite: Your Mercy Like Rain (I think! We're going to do a sprinkling rite at the beginning of mass to announce the Year of Mercy in the parish in conjunction with the Cathedral and universal church. This just kind of came up, so I'm not sure about the music yet.)
Psalm 126: I Had a Dream (OCP)
Advent Gospel Acclamation (Joncas)
Presentation: Your Light Will Come, Jerusalem (Hurd)
Communion: The Wilderness Awaits You
Recessional: On Jordan's Bank (Or "Come, Emmanuel," Alonso)

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