Third Sunday in Advent 2020
Isaiah and St Paul tell their communities to hold on and wait in joyful hope for the coming of Jesus despite whatever was going on around them. This same message applies today even though people may try to find reasons not to rejoice in what some would say a crazy world where things seem to change every minute and difficult to keep up with. Our reality is distorted by a constant inundation of bad news. It seems there is little reason to rejoice especially in the face of human suffering.
We see that when the lowest of the least hear the message, they rejoice. Those in power react with fear because they know that good news for all is not good news for them. Their survival techniques are mass slaughter of the innocent people. The real story of Christmas is it is a subversive act directly aimed at the political power of the time. Isaiah’s message about freedom from oppression, heartbreak, captivity, imprisonment, mourning, robbery, and wrongdoings, is not just for the oppressed but for those listening in - those who are in power – who need to learn that their actions impact on others - how our actions impact on LGBTQIA people, immigrants, refugees, endangered species, or compromised eco-systems. We know that what we do and say impact on others for good or ill. Because of our interconnectedness, we impact on others and the Earth on a daily basis. Isaiah 61 calls us to consider who are the vulnerable one among us – those praying and longing for freedom from oppression, heartbreak, captivity, imprisonment, mourning, robbery, and wrongdoings. Systems, including Home Affairs, Border Force, Centrelink, need to be changed to protect the vulnerable among us.
When Jesus begin his public ministry he used some of Isaiah’s words today. They formed his vision statement and found flesh in striving for justice, in care for the poor and the sick, bringing hope to the outcast and release to the captives. Jesus was returning to his own ancient tradition of caring for the marginalised, which is at the heart of our Christian calling.
In some places signs appeared recently, ‘When all this (Covid-19) is over, how do you want the world to be different?’ There were various responses but one said, ‘When all this is over, I want to live in a different world where I can be heard.’ Though a personal cry, it was also a collective cry. It was so for God’s people in Isaiah’s time as in ours. Isaiah was sent to the poor, the broken-hearted, captives and prisoners because ‘God hears the cry of the poor and the cry of the Earth!’ God focuses on the most impotent among the people - the victims of tyrants and systemic injustice. Mary's song today conveys a similar theme and her message is a more radical one than Isaiah's prophecy. Such a message can still get people ‘red-tagged’.
John’s urgent and disturbing voice shakes things up as they are. To announce God’s nearness was a threat to the independent, the privileged, and comfortable. We see in the Magnificat the subversive song that still strikes fear in those in power as in Calcutta (now Kolkata) in the 1800s; Guatemala in the 1980’s causing it to be banned; it was banned in Argentina when the Mothers of the Disappeared (husbands, sons and daughters, brothers and sisters) non-violently resisted the brutal junta. Its tone is the call for justice for women from throughout the Bible to the present. It is good news to the poor, and bad news to those who want to maintain power and wealth over the poor and vulnerable. It is not consolation from a safe distance but a ‘no’ to who and whatever oppresses and extinguishes a decent future for others. Paul in very concrete ways suggests that we can break out of our prison cells and imagine a new order by helping the weak, not repaying evil for evil, seeking to do good and holding fast to what is good.
John’s preaching shook many consciences and articulated what many felt in their hearts and the urge ‘what can we do?’ John did not propose new religious practices or impose further penances or deliver new precepts. To welcome Jesus among us we need to be aware of the harsh suffering perpetrated upon many of our sisters and brothers – people made invisible by lies and cover-ups or rendered voiceless when we do not listen to them. John’s ‘voice crying out in the wilderness’ was ignored, discounted, ridiculed and ultimately snuffed out by his murder. But, hope is stronger than cynicism, optimism, greed, arrogance, and self-interest. Oppressors want to kill hope, take away the future, and produce pliant, passive people who will do their will. The Magnificat says we can turn around what seems impossible and unthinkable. Desmond Tutu seemed like ‘a voice crying in the wilderness’, but his denunciations of apartheid were always shaped by a hope-filled proclamation that the day of freedom for all South Africans was inevitable, whilst his opponents who promoted racism, inequality and oppression could not hold their ground. People in the peace movement have a vision of a world where peace is inevitable and continue to oppose those who justify war. It was, is, always a defiant hope. Dreams becoming actions. The scriptures do not want us to stop dreaming.
The world is groaning, and the prophetic response is to imagine a new ‘political’ future. Despite attempts to stop it, the dream for freedom and justice is unstoppable. This theme runs through all the readings today. Mary reveals that the coming of Jesus is a subversive act on the part of God. A social revolution is being initiated against unjust rule. These words shout: ‘justice for the masses!’ Society was in need of a subversive act. Israel existed under repressive foreign occupations – the latest from Rome. Cruelty ruled. Rather than suggesting that a few misbehaving leaders or princes would be dragged from their thrones, she was imagining the dismantling of systems of hierarchy, privilege and power. She was not looking for an empire with nice rulers, but no empire at all. We have seen a taste of this transformation in the #MeToo or #BlackLivesMatter movements. We can try to imagine what it might look like if God’s transformative power into other realms, empowering those on the margins, and revoking the privilege of the elite where the voices of the First Nations people were heard and their sovereignty respected; where the voices of those without homes and medical care were empowered; where the voices of those who experience racism, discrimination and violence are believed and taken seriously; where the right of future generations to a liveable climate were empowered; and, if we could imagine the radical transformation in Mary’s message seen from the perspective of the poor of the world and other species. Her song reminds us that the incarnation of God among us is powerful and transformative because when the word becomes flesh and embodies peace-shalom, the world is turned upside down.
Though aware of what plagues our planet, Pope Francis encourages us to live and preach the joy of the Gospel despite ‘The great danger in today’s world, pervaded as it is by consumerism, is the desolation and anguish born of a complacent yet covetous heart, the feverish pursuit of frivolous pleasures and a blunted conscience’ (‘The Joy of the Gospel,’ 2013). For Francis, the church needs to share John’s prophetic role of pointing out the truth in an unjust world; to say no to an economy of exclusion that makes us indifferent and incapable of compassion for the poor; to refuse to be ruled by money but by generous solidarity; to favour an ethical approach to economics and finance that prioritises people over corporations; to be followers of the peaceful Jesus; to say no to the inequality in a society that is content or comfortable in leaving people on the fringes. Pope Francis has called us to embrace ‘the challenges of finding and sharing a mystique of living together, of mingling and encounter, of embracing and supporting one another, of stepping into this flood tide which, while chaotic, can become a genuine experience of fraternity, a caravan of solidarity, a sacred pilgrimage. Greater possibilities for communication thus turn into greater possibilities for encounter and solidarity for everyone. … Sometimes, we are tempted to … keep the Lord’s wounds at arm’s length. Yet, Jesus wants us to touch human misery, to touch the suffering flesh of others.’ We cannot isolate ourselves from human misfortune but ‘instead, to enter into the reality of other people’s lives and know the power of tenderness.’
Pope Francis has just published a new book Let Us Dream: The Path to a Better Future (December 1, 2020). Some might see it as idle dream, but along with many he points out that the Covid-19 pandemic, the suffering notwithstanding, is offering us an opportunity to reimagine the future and create a more equitable global society. Whilst discerning a post Covid-19 vision, Francis has condemned governments who have ‘mortgaged their people’ in response to the coronavirus, saying that human dignity sits at the very centre of our political efforts, and focusing on the provision of all people with land, lodging, and labour, as well as education and health care. We have been called to look to the margins first because we cannot know poverty and injustice from a distance. We must touch it and respond practically and immediately by opening ourselves to structural reforms, e.g., a Universal Basic Income.
As an invisible virus crossed national borders around the world, it revealed our connectedness across the planet. As we have learned, St Paul has taught us that the actions of one has real effects on all. We are all one body. We need to comprehend the interconnectedness of the world's problems. And genuine engagement with any one of these problems gets us involved with the rest, that is, ‘a true ecological approach always becomes a social approach’ leading us to hear ‘the cry of the earth and the cry of the poor’ (Laudato Si').
God is at work in every endeavour that strives for peace and wholeness, even if that peace is partial and its wholeness only glimpsed. God does not only become flesh in the birth of Jesus but in each one of us. When people say ‘come Lord Jesus, come’ it is an invitation to strive to build that ‘culture of encounter,’ often alluded to by Pope Francis, by becoming involved in struggles of people around us, and beyond. We are to become the answers to the Advent prayers of those who hunger and thirst after justice, who cry out for liberation and who yearn for the promise of the Word made flesh, because the God who comes to us in Jesus is the One who ‘brings down the powerful from their thrones, lifts up the lowly, fills the hungry with good things and sends the rich away empty’. Our Advent hope is Jesus - hope of the hopeless, voice of the voiceless and liberator of captives. It is God who walks among us in Jesus, the Word made flesh.