Br. Scott Borden, OHC
Second Sunday of Advent – Sunday, December 10, 2017
|Br. Scott Borden, OHC|
First, let me say how glad I am to be here – and how grateful I am to John for the invitation to be part of your Advent season. Christmas, and the season that leads us to it, Advent, are inevitably joyful times. We contemplate the great mystery of Jesus taking on human flesh and coming into our world – how could it be anything but joyful?
Well... I don't want to take all the joy out of the season, but if we experience this season as entirely joyful then we are missing something. As we prepare our hearts and minds for the coming of Jesus, I want to complicate the emotions a bit.
First, a little history that may seem tangential, but bear with me. Way back in the 1300s a hospital opened in London to serve the mentally ill. We know it as Bedlam Hospital and its reputation for chaos and despair became so great that its very name entered the English language. Bedlam is the word for uproar, confusion, mayhem... and for most of us the notion of Bedlam Hospital is frightening.
Where can this tangent lead us? Well if you were to search on a map for Bedlam Hospital (you have to use an old map) you wouldn't find it. Bedlam was not the name of that hospital. The English have a particular penchant for modifying the way words are pronounced. Bedlam is one of those agreed on pronunciations. But the hospital was properly known as the Bethlehem Royal Hospital. And that is how the tangent leads back to Advent...
Our tradition teaches that Jesus is born in Bethlehem. And then our tradition fills in some ideas of what that must have been like – O Little Town of Bethlehem, how still we see the lie... It came upon a midnight clear... In the bleak mid-winter... all these familiar hymns (which I must say I dearly love) fill our minds with an image of that stable in Bethlehem filled with starlight, crystal-clear air, and a sense of hushed anticipation of the great mystery about to unfold.
But let's be honest... That stable in Bethlehem was certainly more like bedlam. Stables were, to put it politely, fertile places. The air would have hardly been crystal-clear – it would have been pungent and filled with dust and insects. It's nice to think of all the animals in hushed expectation, but they didn't come to witness the event... Mary and Joseph invaded their space.
That stable in Bethlehem stood in a cultural context that was anything but peaceful and beautiful. Social order was falling apart. The so-called Peace of Rome was purchased at a very high price economically and socially. Within the community of faithful Jews, things were particularly difficult – unstable and corrupt government leaders maintained a society in which things were just-not-quite-bad-enough to provoke revolution. In that hostile space, a small and relatively powerless Jewish community had to try to get along.
We could argue that the conflation of bedlam with Bethlehem didn't start at a hospital in London, but at a village in ancient Palestine on the outskirts of Jerusalem... To torture an old Christmas hymn, how far is it to Bedlam? Not very far... Part of our work of Advent is to get our hearts ready for the coming of Jesus – to level the rough places, to make straight the highways, and prepare the way of the Lord. And when we get everything set than Jesus can come...
If that is true, then we have a very long Advent ahead of us. Our present world, like Bethlehem, is bedlam in many ways. Our rough places may be a little less rough than the Roman's, but only if we choose to tell ourselves that much of what is happening in our world is somehow somewhere else.
In Bethlehem, when Jesus was born, injustice happened at a very personal, local level. In our time injustice has become less personal – but we cannot look at the way our economy favors some and deprives others, or the way our justice system favors some and punishes others, or the way our educational favors some and fails others, and say we have had much success in building God's Kingdom on earth.
And that, believe it or not, is good news. Jesus doesn't come because we are ready. Jesus comes because we need salvation. In the good old days (which means 2 generations ago) Advent was a season of penitence... of repenting. Advent and Lent are the two big penitential seasons. It’s a bit hard to feel too penitential when every shopkeeper in the world, including the virtual world, is pumping us full of retail endorphins in order to convince us to purchase copious amounts of stuff. We're told it's how we show our love... the more we spend, the greater our love...
I find it remarkable and bizarre that "Black Friday", the day after Thanksgiving Thursday, has found its way into the larger world as, more or less, a holiday. Its history is that this day of shopping could make or break a retailer – literally, their bottom line would flip from red, meaning loss, to black, meaning profit, hence black Friday. I don't know about Germany, but all around Great Britain shop windows were filled with Black Friday sales announcements – though there is no Thanksgiving Thursday anchoring it.
It is in this cultural context that we keep Advent... that we prepare ourselves for the coming of Jesus.
But here is the thing – one of the great pieces of our Christian tradition is that it allows us to hold conflicting thoughts at the same time. When Mary is rubbing Jesus' feet with nard and some dour Scrooge says how dare you – we could have sold that stuff and had lots of money to help the poor – Jesus reminds us that this is not a binary world. We can always help those in need and, when the Bridegroom is with us, we can celebrate.
We don't have to choose just one... In fact, we must not choose just one. Jesus comes into our world in part to give us a vision of God's Kingdom. Starting in that stable in Bethlehem where representatives from all of God's creation gather to worship the creator we begin to see a world in which the powerless are not oppressed, in which widows and orphans are not forgotten, in which the humble, rather than the mighty, inherit the earth.
In this penitent season, it is good to look around and take note of where the peacemakers are not blessed, where those who mourn are not comforted, where the hungry are not fed, where the merciful not shown mercy.
But that is only half the task. We must also take note of where the peacemakers are blessed, the sorrowful are comforted, the hungry are fed, and the merciful do receive mercy.
True penitence is not just looking at what is wrong and finding ways to feel bad. It is finding ways, to tell the truth – the whole truth. The truth is that our failures of faith are great and vast... and at the same time our demonstrations of faith are also great. Our ability to share love is limitless.
As dark as this world may sometimes be, hope abides. This is not a hope that everything wrong in this world will be better in the next. This is a hope that God, in the flesh of Jesus, comes into this world.
Saint Paul tells us, the Kingdom of God is very near. We can see it. We can feel it. When we break bread together, when we share joys and sorrows, when we look at a newborn child, or for that matter a mother cat with kittens, we can see glimpses of God's Kingdom very near indeed. Whenever we see the action of love, we see glimpses of God.
Illusion keeps us trapped in the status quo, a place of greed and self-interest. And Jesus comes to set up free, to shatter our illusions. True and honest repentance in this penitential season is our best tool.
And so, Lord Jesus quickly come.