Sunday, December 20, 2015

Advent 4 C - Dec 20, 2015

Holy Cross Monastery, West Park, NY
Br. Peter Rostron, OHC
Advent 4 C - Sunday, December 20, 2015

Micah 5:2-5a
Hebrews 10:5-10
Luke 1:39-45, (46-55)

The Visitation
I’ve been struck over the past three weeks by the severity of some of the readings we’ve heard here at the monastery during Matins and the Eucharist. It’s been like an ongoing one-two punch for me: the prophets at church and then Donald Trump in the news. John the Baptist warned about trees being cut down and thrown into the fire. Jesus spoke of distress among nations and of people fainting from fear and foreboding for what is coming upon the world. Isaiah told of a voice, crying out in the wilderness. A voice, as I imagined it, that was filled with urgency and yearning and anguish. There was, in particular, one reading, from the prophet Amos, that grabbed my attention. I’ll share a bit of it with you.

“Alas for you who desire the day of the Lord! Why do you want the day of the Lord? It is darkness, not light; as if someone fled from a lion, and was met by a bear; or went into the house and rested a hand against the wall, and was bitten by a snake...I hate, I despise your festivals, and I take no delight in your solemn assemblies. Even though you offer me your burnt offerings and grain offerings, I will not accept them; and the offerings of well-being of your fatted animals I will not look upon. Take away from me the noise of your songs; I will not listen to the melody of your harps.”

Amos spoke this message almost 3000 years ago, so it can’t possibly apply to us, can it? But I’m increasingly afraid that it does.

I look around, and I see a world filled with material excess and enticing advertisements and numbing distractions. Distractions that help us avoid looking at all the real pain and suffering and injustice that exists. A world, as Amos described, that we have filled with festivals and solemn assemblies and the noise of songs. I have been lamenting, also, how much our perceptions, our desires, and our choices can be so heavily influenced by superficial, appealing packaging, by what looks good on TV or online or on the shelf at the store. How much our opinions and beliefs can be so heavily influenced by the attractively packaged words of a newspaper, a blog, or a captivating politician. Our society seems fueled by a desire for quick, easy, off-the-shelf, feel-good solutions and entertainments. What we like, how we behave, what we wear, what we buy, what we believe - is too often the product of a bombardment of seductive advertising and images. We are at risk of our selves becoming defined purely by outside inputs and losing our own inner, grounded, holy selves. The world seems to be on very shaky ground these days.

There was an interesting opinion piece in the Washington Post a few weeks ago by Anne Applebaum in which she talked about the terrible damage done to democratic debate and civilized discussion by our reliance on the Internet for news and our immersion in various forms of social media. She wrote, “Nevermind that Donald Trump’s claim that thousands of Muslims in New Jersey cheered the collapse of the World Trade Center is false; it is now possible to live in a virtual reality where Trump’s lies are acclaimed as the hidden truth that the mainstream media have concealed from the masses. The long-term impact of such disinformation is profound: it creates cynicism and apathy. Eventually it means nobody believes anything. People aren’t bothered by Trump’s lies or Vladimir Putins’ lies or the Islamic State’s lies because they don’t believe anything they read anymore. It’s impossible to know what’s true.” Shaky ground, indeed.

But finally, I find some relief upon hearing today’s gospel, welcoming Mary into my Advent experience. After a steady stream of harsh words from the prophets, I at last feel some hope and solid truth in Mary. Her world, like ours, was fraught and dangerous, and she was faced with an unsettling and risky decision, as we often are. She could have played it safe and stuck to the social script of the time, conforming to her role as Joseph’s young betrothed, and simply said “No” to God. “Maybe someone else would be a better choice, God.” Or, “Maybe later, God, after Joseph and I have gotten married and settled down.” But, she said “Yes.” She chose to trust in God, to turn herself completely over to God’s truth, to not succumb to fear, to step, in faith, into the unknown.

And just after making this great decision, she spent three long months visiting with her cousin, Elizabeth. To connect deeply, not just exchange text messages. To share her joy, no doubt, but also to share her anxiety. To find comfort with a friend and to have the companionship of a woman who also was pregnant. Imagine those two together. Both had very good reasons to be anxious and fearful. Mary had been visited by an angel, Gabriel, as had Elizabeth’s husband, Zechariah, who told them of surprising things that were about to happen, and to not be afraid. Right! I suspect both Mary and Elizabeth were quite afraid. Mary, wondering how her husband Joseph might react, what might happen to their planned marriage, what could happen to her if she ended up an unwed young woman with child. And, what this child might bring. And Elizabeth, barren and older in years, suddenly and unexpectedly pregnant, who had been in seclusion for five months with a husband who had been struck mute. Yet, they had each other - and more. The Holy Spirit was with them, having come upon Mary and through Mary to Elizabeth and to her child, John, who leaped in her womb. In a way, I can see this as a beginning of the church: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit present where two or three have gathered together. What an amazing scene, an amazing focal point of God’s power there in that small house with Mary and Elizabeth and Jesus and John.

And there is in that scene great hope for us, today, too. We, as they, live in troubled times. The prophets had repeatedly warned Mary’s ancestors, the people Israel, of their sinful ways, as they continued to turn away from the Lord. They would return, and God would forgive, but it happened again and again. And our situation seems no better. Mary and Elizabeth lived under the weight of imperial domination, and we have our own, 21st-century version of forces with great wealth and power oppressing many of us. Amos’s words do ring true today. But, in the midst of the mess, across time, sits Mary. Through her, God became human to save us. Through her, we have Christ with us, within us. Even so, with Mary as our inspiration we still have to say “Yes.” Like Mary and Elizabeth, we must join together and offer each other our mutual love and support and comfort. Like Jesus, we must be free of the seductions and false securities of the world and do the hard work of living out God’s will for us. We must reach out to the tax collectors and prostitutes and Pharisees, the citizens and prisoners being mistreated by our criminal justice system, the immigrants being vilified by our leaders, the foreign peoples being killed and maimed by our bombs, our own friends and neighbors being left without adequate food or shelter or health care.

Ultimately, I believe humanity will encounter the day of the Lord. We will celebrate Christmas in just a few days, but Jesus’s birth is ongoing. He is being born within us, and God’s kingdom is coming, slowly but surely, in God’s time. It may be, as Amos said, that the day of the Lord will be darkness, not light, but that is because it won’t be - it is not now - easy. As we heard just this morning in the Revelation to John, birth pangs can be agony. There is evil in the world, and it won’t go quietly; it is systemic evil. We are called to feed the poor and visit the prisoner, but we must go further and work to eliminate poverty and create true “justice.” In the Magnificat, Mary says God has done great things for her, God’s lowly servant. And that, in his mercy, God will do good things for all who are hungry and lowly, forever, in fulfillment of his promise to the entire family of Abraham. Which means us. Even Amos, after all his harsh words, concluded, Let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an everflowing stream. So, let us say “Yes” and know that after the darkness, there will be light. And know that Mary is our companion in the birthing of Christ.

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