Fourth Sunday in Advent
Pope Francis, in Fratelli Tutti, speaks of the need for an open heart. He writes, ‘the guarantee of an authentic openness to God….is a way of practicing the faith that helps open our hearts to our brothers and sisters.’ It the key for building peace in our world. Francis has tried to address breakdowns in human relationships which lead to violence and a culture of indifference by calling for a culture of encounter. It is a call to develop a culture of kindness especially in the face of divisions made evidenced by hateful language, mean-spiritedness, prejudice, and neglect.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, in God Is In the Manger asks, ‘Who among us will celebrate Christmas correctly?’ He responds, ‘Whoever finally lays down all power, all honor, all reputation, all vanity, all arrogance, all individualism beside the manger; whoever remains lowly and lets God alone be high; whoever looks at the child in the manger and sees the glory of God precisely in his lowliness.’
Francis shows us, in the story of the God Samaritan, how to achieve the ‘openness of heart’ our fractured world needs. The encounter between the injured Jewish man and the Samaritan was transforming for both despite their mutual hatred. Though the barriers that divide people may seem insurmountable, we see that God can always enter through the smallest foothold through the smallest gesture of openness and generosity as we see in the response of a poor teenage girl in an obscure part of the world. God can enter we offer up the smallest bit of space for God.
In the first reading, for some reason David wanted to build God a nice house. God’s response was to remind David that has always been on the move, living in tents with the people journeying through the desert. And, Pope Francis continually reminds us about ‘people on the move’ around the world and shows us a God who journeys with people especially those ‘on the move.’
People in power may seek to determine God’s dimensions - making God in their own image and likeness: remote, comfortable, powerful, controlling, manipulative, straight, white, male and unwilling to upset the status quo. But the gospels preach liberation from patriarchy, feudalism, capitalism or any kind of society that uses people or discards them. Jesus’ birth undermines all forms of imperial power, wealth and domination as was proclaimed in Mary’s Song. God becoming flesh is not just about the birth of a child but the birth of a whole new order of love and justice. As Bonhoeffer said, God ‘comes in the form of the beggar, of the dissolute human child in ragged clothes, asking for help. He confronts you in every person that you meet. As long as there are people, Christ will walk the earth as your neighbour, as the one through whom God calls you, speaks to you, makes demands on you.’
The God of new beginnings comes in the smallest and darkest spaces of our lives as well as our beautiful cosmos. As in the case of Mary, and those Jesus sat with, God takes notices makes us all significant. In Jesus, the sacred occurs in a new place, it comes within the parameters of humanity and creation. God never touches us in a vacuum but through people, the material world, the touch of others, intimacy with others (even the one we share a bed with), the caress of Creation, voices raised on behalf of the oppressed and gestures that reveal goodness in people. God came to live in the in all the dark spaces in our world and is present in the rubble that is Gaza. God lives where there is peace and where there is no peace. God has a home - within each of us - as well as the homeless person’s squat, amongst nurses, doctors, and other aides in the world’s medical clinics, in the refugee camp, in slums, and in our homes. How can we not see this as we look at the rubble that is Gaza now? These are places of encounter with God where people seek to be in solidarity with others, sharing in their joys and pains, and always moving to a new physical and social reality.
The world in which God comes is the one where people cry out for freedom from tyranny, bullying and oppression as we see in the Magnificat. God comes through the cries of people in Gaza, the West Bank, Yemen, Ethiopia, South Sudan, Syria, Iran, Iraq, in Afghanistan, the Rohingya, and in parts of Queensland, Western Australia and New South Wales. The angel announced a new reign where the marginalised and poor find a place. The Spirit descending on Mary reminds us that God is always associated with real places and comes to poor people, to women and children. Humanity – even if unbelieving, sceptical, religiously confused - is a holy place. We can by our presence become places that make possible a new and different world. We can make change.
There is a hidden web of connection between us. We have choice. We can choose to participate in bringing peace to God's people beginning in our homes, workplaces and homes of friends and then to people who are belittled or treated with contempt (Muslims, LGPTIQA+ people, women, youth, people of other ethnic backgrounds). Can we say with Mary, ‘Here I am’ and give birth to something new.
We too are called to give birth to Jesus and nourish hope in the world - even if seemingly hopeless or unappreciated. Dorothy Day spoke of ‘making room for Christ’ and tells us where we can welcome Christ: ‘it is with the voices of our contemporaries that he speaks. With the eyes of store clerks and children, he looks at us. With the hands of slum dwellers and suburban housewives, he reaches out. He walks with the feet of the soldier and the tramp. With the heart of all in need, he longs for us to shelter him. And, the giving of shelter or food or welcome to anyone who asks or needs it, is giving to Christ and making room for his holiness to dwell within.’
Christmas requires us to step into, not out of, the tough realities of our world. The new world order that God in Jesus initiates is about a different way of living and relationship. We are called into a radical connectedness with others - especially the least and marginalised; to a radical generosity and care for one another and creation. Many people wonder where God is in the face of so much tragedy. It is the wrong question. The question that needs to be asked is where the church is, where was the church, where were we. We ask this about the Holocaust, the Palestinian Nakba and the ongoing occupation, Apartheid in South Africa, the oppression of Dalits in India and Tamils in Sri Lanka, the plight of refugees today. In the face of human cruelty, past and present, it is not God’s silence that is troubling but the silence of religious institutions that are more concerned with Band-Aids rather than real solutions that promote peace with justice that risk offending the powerful and privileged. Advent is not a time to be passive.
Passivity or comfort cannot allow us to neglect others based on ethnic, religious, political distinctions. For Pope Francis, the one who pays attention is one who ‘in the noise of the world, does not let him or herself be overwhelmed by distraction or superficiality, but lives in a full and conscious way, with a concern directed above all to others.’
We need to increase working for peace. It is up to each of us to determine what we can do locally, nationally, and globally. What ultimately matters, is the sum of our total efforts for the good of all and the Earth itself. Though Martin Luther King, Jr., reminded us that ‘the arc of the moral universe is long, but it bends toward justice’ and takes a long time, it is also true that the arc of the moral universe isn’t going to bend itself. Let us learn to see with new eyes. To see from a different perspective. To focus our attention on God’s wondrous action in the world. It is sometimes hard to see how God is working, and how we can work, in a darkened world. As Advent is the time to learn how God sees us, and then to see others and ask ourselves what might God be building in us?