Isaiah and St Paul tell their communities to hold on and wait in joyful hope for the coming of Jesus despite their circumstances. Yet, many people are trying to find reasons to rejoice in what seems a crazy and ever-changing world. Our reality is distorted by a constant inundation of bad news. It seems that where we look it seems that the bad guys are winning – something that John would also have felt before his death. No doubt many of us feel the same way. Jesus’ followers were drowning in bad news as we are today and some were reviled, ridiculed, persecuted and sidelined. There seems little reason to rejoice in the face of human suffering.
Yet, ordinary people keep telling the story of Jesus, sharing in the Eucharist, care for one another, and continue to live countercultural lives. They march to a different drumbeat. Those in power react with fear when good news is proclaimed for the poor. The powerful know it is not good news for them. They survive by oppression and the mass slaughter of innocent people, but Isaiah’s message about freedom from oppression, heartbreak, captivity, imprisonment, mourning, and robbery is for the oppressed as well as those in power who need to see how their actions impact on others.
Using Isaiah’s words when he began his public ministry, Jesus was returning to his own ancient tradition of caring for the marginalised as it is at the heart of our Christian calling. Jesus words and actions show that God focuses on the most impotent among the people – a theme conveyed in Mary’s Song (the Magnificat) today. She too talks of rejoicing. It seemed incongruous in her time as it is today with the gaps between the rich and the poor widening, wholesale destruction by war and climate change. Talk of rejoicing sounds unreal, naive, or even delusional as we witness world events as well as harsh and nasty policies being enacted by our government. Isaiah’s understanding of joy more nuanced. Like any of us, we cannot deny the harsh realities people experience. For Isaiah, rejoicing comes when social divisions and wounds have been healed and after we engage with marginalised people and attend to their needs. Only then does rejoicing happen. A denial of brokenness and pain does not lead to joy but is made possible when ordinary people are moved by the Spirit to comfort and heal. In the dark days in which we live, they show us that light and hope are possible.
John’s presence shook many consciences. We know that Mary’s Song struck fear in those in power throughout the ages (e.g., British occupied India, Argentina during the Dirty War) causing it to be banned in many places. Its tone continues to be a call for justice and is a ‘no’ to whoever and whatever oppresses and extinguishes a decent future for others. Here is woman’s summary (lament) at the state of the world and her insistence that it does not have to remain that way. She was vulnerable and lived in a culture oppressed by Roman rule and held together by strict social and cultural rules in which women were like property. The people asked John, ‘what can we do?’ It is a question many people as they share in the pain of their sisters and brothers in Gaza. As John’s ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’ was ignored, discounted, ridiculed so too are those who call for peace with justice. Jewish people who call for peace and justice in Gaza are being ostracised and labeled as ‘self-hating Jews’ – for bringing their concerns into the public space or airing Israel’s (or Australia’s) dirty linen in public. The prophets of Israel could also have been labeled as ‘self-hating Jews’ when they challenged the corruption among contemporary leaders. It is important and vital that we do not look away. This hope is stronger than cynicism, optimism, greed, arrogance, and self-interest. Oppressors and those who collaborate with, even by their silence, want to kill hope and produce pliant, passive people who will do their will. We have often overemphasized Mary’s fiat (her ‘yes’ or ‘your will be done’) and rendered her submissive. Mary has been co-opted by leaders to support an agenda that sees her (and women more broadly) only as mothers. We see today that her story does not end with Annunciation. She says we can turn around what seems impossible and unthinkable. Immediately after saying her ‘yes,’ we see her prophetically calling on God for the liberation of the poor and the scattering of the proud and downfall of the powerful. Mary is the Theotókos (Mother of God), but her importance extends beyond her womb otherwise we miss the point of Mary’s Song. God has done great things for her – but will also do great things for Israel, for God’s chosen people. Mary is not turned inward, but outward – not her own motherhood, but justice for the oppressed. Mary was poor. She was a woman of colour. She was part of an oppressed community and under occupation. Like many Jewish women and men before her, she longed for liberation and sings a song that reveals and revels in God’s preferential love for the poor. The scriptures do not want us to stop dreaming. The world is groaning, and the prophetic response is to imagine a new ‘political’ future and act together. Despite attempts to stop it, the dream for freedom and justice is unstoppable. This theme runs through all the readings today. She reveals that Jesus’ coming is God’s subversive act and the beginning of a social revolution where systems of hierarchy, privilege, power, and clericalism are dismantled. It is the end of empire where God’s transformative power enters to empower those on the margins, where the voices of First Nations people were heard, and sovereignty respected; where the voices of people without homes and medical care were empowered; where the voices of people experiencing racism, discrimination and violence are believed; where future generations could share in a liveable climate were empowered, and where stand for peace with all who have that taken from them.
Pope Francis keeps reminding us of our interconnectedness and becoming involved in struggles of people around us. As St Paul says the actions of one affect all. We are all one body. And genuine engagement with any one of these problems gets us involved with the rest. We are to be the answer for those hungering and thirsting for justice, crying out for liberation, and yearning for the promise of the God who comes in Jesus and who ‘brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty’.
God is on our side to denounce forms of political domination, economic subversion, suppression of descent, pushing the poor to the periphery, and the dismantling of democracy. May we be bold in being on the side of the poor and speak out on any attempt to shut out the poor from sharing the benefits of development. God has already taken their side. How about us? Are our voices crying out through the wilderness that is this country, this world? Are we laying the groundwork that prepares the way for something bigger than personal gain? Are we, individually and collectively, resisting the temptation to be so bound by the market that our baptisms — our death and resurrection in Christ — have been lost to amnesia? Do we find ourselves listening to the prophets in our midst, or are we distracted by those who would lull us into passivity and indifference? I have not long finished Julia Baird’s excellent book Bright Shining. She concludes by quoting George Eliot in Middlemarch, who says that ‘the growing good of the world is partly dependent on unhistoric acts.’ These are everyday acts that never hit the history books but make a difference. These are what the world depends on. Ultimately, they are about standing with the oppressed and abused, the vulnerable and ignored, and listening in silence and sympathy. As the discouraged, weary and frightened John the Baptist asked about Jesus, ‘Are you the one to come or shall we look for another?’ let’s remember his promise to be with us until the end of time but also look beyond the daily bad news we are fed to the daily or everyday good news where countless people tend to, cared for, heal peoples’ physical and psychological wounds, sit with them and feed the hungry for food and understanding.
Let us harvest the power within each one of us in solidarity, cooperation, and collaboration.