Thursday, December 1, 2016

First Sunday of Advent -Year A

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Roy Parker, OHC
First Sunday of Advent-Year A - Sunday, November  27, 2016

"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father..." That day and hour refers to the suffering of the days in which the sun and moon are darkened, the stars fall from heaven, the powers of heaven are shaken, the sign of the Son of Man appears in heaven, all the tribes of the earth mourn and see the Son of Man coming on the clouds of heaven with power and great glory.., and so forth. For our purposes it will be useful to describe the wider Biblical background of that imagery. That is, the cosmic disruption, the darkening of the sun and moon, the falling of the stars, and so forth, occurs three times in the Hebrew Bible in association with oracles of doom against Egypt, Edom, and Babylon, kingdoms which have subjugated Israel, and each of those three Doom Oracles is accompanied by an Oracle of Promise for the restoration of an entirely devastated Israel, an Israel reduced to the point of nothingness.

This background scenario of the Gospel passage suggests that such a point of nothingness would be essential to understanding the return of Jesus in glory. It will dawn upon us that whatever may constitute the Great Advent of Jesus in divine glory attended by angels, there are plenty of dress rehearsals in terms of that point of nothingness about which I owe you a larger description. I should say that my words on this are indebted to the work of Walter Brueggemann, a leading scholar of the Hebrew Bible.

When I speak of Israel here, be mindful that God's intention for Israel, expressed in intervention on behalf of an abused and suffering people, carries over to what is considered to be the new Israel, the Church of God, described and celebrated in the proclamations of the Easter Vigil. In what is said about Israel of old, be mindful of its potential in the life of the Christian Church.

The great theological reality of the Hebrew Scriptures is the failure of Jerusalem, the end of its hegemony, the deportation of Israel, and the reality of exile, a dismal ending that was the termination of all old faith claims. It is impossible to overstate the cruciality of this fissure in Israel's self-understanding. This was for Israel a genuine and profound ending. Judah came to an end. 

The public, institutional life of But beyond that Israel made the theological judgement that God had abandoned Israel and had nullified all the old promises. The political-military experience of an ending is transposed into a deep theological crisis.

It is this moment of failure that is called the point zero. It is the moment when Israel has two tasks that belong definitively to its faith. The first -- long practiced in the Psalms of lamentation and complaint -- is to relinquish what is gone, to resist every denial and every act of nostalgia, to acknowledge and embrace the ending God has given. Jerusalem is gone! Israel will not soon have done with its sense of loss, variously expressed as grief and as rage. Israel's second task is to receive what is inexplicably and inscrutably given by God, to resist every measure of despair, to await and affirm what God, beyond every quid pro quo, now gives. This is an important point: the faith of Israel envisions no automatic move from relinquishment to reception; one does not follow necessarily from or after the other. Israel's poets, singers, and speakers of oracles, heard as the very assurance of God's own voice, arise precisely in the point zero. Amos Wilder had it right: "Accept no mitigation, but be instructed at the null point; the zero breeds new algebra."

We are here at the center of the mystery of Jewish faith that receives, in Christian perspective, its dramatic enactment in Easter. There is a "breeding," a hidden generativity of newness, just at the zero. The "breeding" at zero is not simply necessity. The "breeding" at zero is not only Israel's act of will for newness or wishful thinking. The "breeding" at zero is not simply buoyant poets in their extreme imagination. Perhaps it is all of these; but beyond these is the wounded but undefeated, affronted but not alienated, shamed but not negated resolve of God to have a people as God's own people in the world. And therefore, it is clear in the canonical text of Jews and Christians, there will be a new Israel, reloved, healed, ransomed, blessed, brought home rejoicing -- by no claim of its own but by the nonnegotiable resolve of God to have a people.

The rhetoric of hope whereby Israel, in its hopelessness, must receive its new gift from God is given in many voices. Indeed, Israel requires endless generativity in order to speak the unspeakable newness from God that is beyond explanation. One such voice is that of the Latina Junot Diaz who talks to her sister about radical hope in the wake of the recent election.

"What now? you asked. And that was my students' question too. What now?l answered them as poorly as I answered you, I fear. And so I sit here in the middle of the night, in an attempt to try again.

So what now? Well, first and foremost, we need to feel. We need to connect courageously with the rejection, the fear, the vulnerability that Trump's victory has inflicted on us, without turning away or numbing ourselves or lapsing into cynicism. We need to bear witness to what we have lost: our safety, our sense of belonging, our vision of our country. We need to mourn all these injuries fully, so that they do not drag us into despair, so repair will be possible.

And while we're doing the hard, necessary work of mourning, we should avail ourselves of the old formations that have seen us through darkness. We organize. We form solidarities. And, yes: we fight. To be heard. To be safe. To be free.

For those of us who have been in the fight, the prospect of more fighting, after so cruel a setback, will seem impossible. At moments like these, it is easy to feel that one can't go on. But I believe that, once the shock  settles, faith and energy will return. But let's be real: we always knew this wasn't going to be easy. Colonial power, patriarchal power, capitalist power must always and everywhere be battled, because they never, ever quit. We have to keep fighting, because otherwise there will be no future -- all will be consumed. Those of us whose ancestors were owned and bred like animals know that future all too well, because it is, in part, our past. And we know that by fighting against all odds, we who had nothing, not even our real names, transformed the universe. Our ancestors did this with very little, and we who have more must do the same. This is the joyous destiny of our people -- to bury the arc of the moral universe so deep in justice that it will never be undone.

But all the fighting in the world will not help us if we do not also hope. What I'm trying to cultivate is not blind optimism but what the philosopher Jonathan Lear calls radical hope. "What makes this hope radical ," Lear writes,"is that it is directed toward a future goodness that  transcends the current ability to understand what it is." Radical hope is not so much something you have but something you practice; it demands flexibility, openness, and what Lear describes as "imaginative excellence," Radical hope is our best weapon against despair, even when despair seems justifiable; it makes the survival of the end of your world possible. Only radical hope could have imagined people like us into existence. And I believe that it will help us create a better, more loving future... Time to face this hard new world, to return to the great shining work of our people. Darkness, after all, is breaking, a new day has come.

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