An Advent song for our age

Credit: https://www.shcj.org/reflection-on-the-visitation-of-mary/

When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the infant leaped in her womb, and Elizabeth, filled with the Holy Spirit, cried out in a loud voice and said, “Most blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And how does this happen to me, that the mother of my Lord should come to me, for at the moment the sound of your greeting reached my ears, the infant in my womb leaped for joy.”Luke 1:41-44

Gaudete! This is the week of joyful anticipation!!

Just as Jesus and John leaped for joy in the wombs of their holy mothers, we rejoice and leap for joy as we wait for the great things to come, the fulfillment of God’s promises!

Yes, we are aware that we wait in darkness. We are overwhelmed and pained by the intensity of oppression suffered throughout the world, near and far. Children sleep on streets, many people lack adequate shelter and water, bombs are being dropped, refugees are fleeing. Poverty, injustice, and violence are real and serious threats upon the dignity of humanity.

Still, with hope and joy we lovingly labor for a world where God’s reign is known, wherein justice is triumphant.

No matter our circumstances, how can our voices contribute toward the coming fullness of God’s reign? How can we join our voices together and sing a song of reversal that is in harmony with the strength and hope heard in Mary’s song in Luke 1:46-55?

And Mary said:

“My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;

my spirit rejoices in God my savior.

For he has looked upon his handmaid’s lowliness;

behold, from now on will all ages call me blessed.

The Mighty One has done great things for me,

and holy is his name.

His mercy is from age to age

to those who fear him.

He has shown might with his arm,

dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.

He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones

but lifted up the lowly.

The hungry he has filled with good things;

the rich he has sent away empty.

He has helped Israel his servant,

remembering his mercy,

according to his promise to our fathers,

to Abraham and to his descendants forever.”

Luke 1:46-55

 

I recently studied Elizabeth Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat (Luke 1:46-55) within her masterful work Truly Our Sister: A Theology of Mary in the Communion of Saints (Continuum, 2003) as part of my graduate studies. This writing encouraged me to remain faithful and hopeful in the midst of the struggle for justice. I was provided a solid footing in information about the requirements for justice.

Source: http://www.amazon.com/Truly-Our-Sister-Theology-Communion/dp/0826418279

For example, even though Mary’s song is the longest speech from any woman in the entire New Testament, it is one of several hymns sung by Jewish women; it is parallel in content and structure to what was sung by several prophetesses in the Old Testament. Like their songs, Mary’s song also praises God’s creation of a liberating revolution.[1]

With scholarship and reverence, Johnson details how Mary’s particular circumstances established her as dangerous for anyone who does not embrace God’s reign. God chose Mary, a poor woman, to be the partner in our salvation and she praises God from the depth of her relationship with God; God has preference for those who are economically and spiritually poor.[2]

Mary was an oppressed woman and her song paints a picture of justice; throughout salvation history we understand that God defines justice as reversal. Mary’s voice foreshadows Jesus’ message in the Gospels. Fittingly then, Mary’s song is a “revolutionary song of salvation whose concrete social, economic, and political dimensions cannot be blunted.”[3]

Praise and justice come together; by the life-giving body of the pregnant Mary we know a role model for solidarity with the oppressed. In her message, we can envision a world where all the hungry are fed and all power structures turn upside down.[4]

Mary’s song is a song for everyone, and it is very much music to the ears of people who live in poverty.[5] Yet, Johnson admits, “This message will not appeal to those who are satisfied with the way things are.” She advises that those who are prosperous strengthen their solidarity.[6] I was invigorated for my task of informing those of us who comfortably enjoy privileges about the needs of a hungry humanity, of calling all of us to more mindfulness.

Ultimately, Johnson’s commentary on the Magnificat provides me with a hopeful lens through which I can view the injustices of today. It taught me how to joyfully sing songs of response that glorify and please God, through both word and deed.

By Mary’s partnership we experience the dawning of the Messianic Age. Her song is also a daily prayer that can inform our every-day work of helping God’s justice reign. In the words of Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world, about the power of God and the powerless of humankind.[7]

Indeed, as Johnson so clearly articulated, in Mary’s universal song we hear the ultimate Advent hymn—a song of hope to reverse the patterns of suffering prevalent in the world today.

As we leap in joy and wait in hopeful anticipation for the coming of God’s Kingdom fully known, let us join Mary and do the work of establishing God’s justice while this song rings in our hearts!

AMEN!

[1] Elizabeth Johnson, Truly Our Sister (New York: Continuum, 2003), 263-264.

[2] Johnson, 264-265.

[3] Johnson, 269.

[4] Johnson, 271.

[5] Johnson, 269.

[6] Johnson, 270.

[7] Johnson, 267.

 

They have guns, but we have flowers—a modern beatitude

The beatitudes have been called Jesus’ version of the Ten Commandments. They sum up the heart of his message, point us in the right direction, show us the truth of God and grant eternal hope.

Except they are a lot harder to understand. And to follow.

What does it really mean, that

Blessed are the poor in spirit,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn,
    for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek,
    for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness,
    for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful,
    for they will be shown mercy.
Blessed are the pure in heart,
    for they will see God.
Blessed are the peacemakers,
    for they will be called children of God.
Blessed are those who are persecuted because of righteousness,
    for theirs is the kingdom of heaven.”  Matthew 5:3-10 

This week I heard the closest thing ever to a modern restatement of the beatitudes. It was an interview with a young French child and his father at the Bataclan, the site of one of the terror attacks in Paris last Friday.

“They might have guns, but we have flowers.”

Or in other words….

In the face of a gun, we light a candle and place a flower.

In the face of loss our empty hands link with other empty hands and we are not alone anymore.

In the face of horror we touch that place/time where God’s love is absolutely unstoppable.

Thank you to all the children who are suffering fear and loss this week and have taught us the meaning of Jesus’ words again.

P.S. Sometimes I like to hear the beatitudes with fresh ears. Check out this version from The Message by Eugene Peterson, which is not a Bible translation but a re-telling in modern language.

“And know that you are in good company. My prophets and witnesses have always gotten into this kind of trouble.”

So—keep getting into trouble!

hot desert heartache

"Dry Land" by Julia Walsh, FSPA

It’s confusing in this lenten desert. It’s not my home, but yet here I am.  It’s hot, bare and dirty.  My desire for lenten thirst and contemplation drew me here, but now I don’t know what to do with myself.  The creatures are unfamiliar, the thorns scare me.  I don’t even know how to sit comfortably.  How can I know God in this strange place?

I try to listen to God in the strange seeming stillness. But, really, I find that I can’t sit still.  My gaze and my movement is away from God in the quiet. Or, is it?

I find that it’s impossible to contemplate God’s presence and ignore the cries of the world.  I worry about the destruction and despair in Japan.  I learn of more bombings and gunfire in Afghanistan, Iraq, Israel, Palestine and between gangs in the USA.  I know too many young people whose dreams are and growth is  impacted by instability within their homes.  I am flooded with prayer requests for people’s health, relationships, job-searches and economics.  I know that many people are desperately struggling for their survival.  I feel overwhelmed with the truth of injustice, suffering and pain. Tension flares within me as I hear that our government is about to shut down.  How can this be okay? How many people will suffer even more just because our elected leaders can’t come to some sort of compassionate compromise?

What caused us to get into this great big mess?  What has happened to our global interdependence and national unity?  I’ve studied the causes of social problems and I can’t say that the fact that we are driven by fear, greed and power-struggles gives me any hope.

I’m getting kind of grumpy in this desert.  In prayer I whine about how the lenten challenge of facing the ugly can help me gain faith.  It doesn’t make sense and the confusion gets thicker.  I listen a bit more.  Then God reminds me of the Word.

Will not the day of the LORD be darkness and not light, gloom without any brightness?  I hate, I spurn your feasts, I take no pleasure in your solemnities; Your cereal offerings I will not accept, nor consider your stall-fed peace offerings.   Away with your noisy songs! I will not listen to the melodies of your harps. But if you would offer me holocausts,  then let justice surge like water, and goodness like an unfailing stream-Amos 5: 20-24

Oh yeah!  This desert is a place of remembering, and I finally am.  We do all this- all this tough Gospel stuff- because our message shall shower the land with freedom.  Streams of great water flow through the land and renew and restore all.

I feel like I am trying to see in the dark but the sun is shining.  It’s not really that gloomy and ugly, it’s just not my ordinary.  I begin to notice the life that is blooming through the dusty landscape.  With God, the darkness and the light are one.

I am not to drown out the pain with cheerful music or simple sacrifice, Amos said.  Instead, I am to dance in the dark to the beautiful songs of justice and goodness and let those waters wash me clean.  The sacred desert is engaged with the world, all my actions there matter.  This desert is my home, after all.

Sorry, I Didn’t Recognize You (part two)

Guest blogger, Amy Nee, part two of two (here’s part one)

I caught that train and took it to Cermak-Chinatown. The Congress on Urban Ministry had converged on the Hyatt at McCormick Place (a hotel and convention center the size of a neighborhood) and was hosting free “Words and Worship” services in the evenings. That night Shane Claiborne was scheduled to speak. He is an author and activist and part of “The Simple Way,” a community that calls for a way that is both simple and profound. The residents recognize people around them as neighbors—whether those people are gang members, prostitutes, school children, investment bankers or Iraqi citizens on the other side of the world. Shane is a representative of people who take seriously Jesus’ advocacy of neighbor-love, and enemy-love. He talked that night about grace as the backdrop for peace.  Grace, he said, is seeing the same things, the same people, with new eyes; it is seeing beyond surface and assumptions.

Closing his talk, Shane shared a video clip filmed during his time in India working with Mother Teresa and the Sisters of Charity. The camera holds closely the image of a child shaking with terror from an accident he has just survived. Malnourished, the boy’s skin is stretched tightly over his bones. His head appears too large for his birdlike body which convulses in the arms of a Catholic sister who is leaning over his railed bed. She firmly but gently rubs his fragile frame, over and over. Her hands transfer compassion and healing and gradually his tremors still. The boy’s body becomes loose and limp, his angular head tips toward the sister. His eyes, deep, dark pools, meet hers. The hospital is crowded with children no doubt in equal need, but she holds him.  Infinity in their gaze. A look of recognition.

My heart stirs, a desire rising. I want to go to India, to be her, to hold him. But there is something beyond this want. I desire that type of engagement—with the afflicted, with my Mom, with the woman behind the cash register, with the man asking me for change and the prisoner I can’t see—awareness, presence, compassion. I want to recognize people and to give people the opportunity to recognize each other. If not to see Christ in the poor, the oppressed, the stranger, the loved and the unlovely; to see ourselves.

How can we “satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” when we move through life like casually skipped stones, skimming the surface, making occasional, brief contact—splish, what they seem to want—splash, what we think they need—plunk, deep, drinking desire.  We are awestruck out of our element there.  It is a scary thing to sink into the unknown.  I can say that I am called to this as a Christian, and I am.  But I want to clarify that I think Jesus’ mission was not to make a Church but to teach us to be whole humans, to restore the earth and its residents to life.  Thus, whatever my religion, I am called to this as a living being.  Waking life requires it.

Sorry, I Didn’t Recognize You

Guest blogger, Amy Nee, part one of two

Wearing gloves severely inhibits fine motor skills. As I fumbled to extricate my Chicago Transit Authority card from my wallet and insert it into the vending machine at the Granville El Station I heard: “A Red Line Train—heading toward the Loop—will be arriving shortly.” The mechanized announcement suddenly instilled in me a sense of urgency despite the fact that I was leaving hours before what was necessary to reach my destination on time.

Carefully and quickly separating softened single bills into the machine—please don’t reject these ragged edges—I heard the rough voice of a woman calling out from behind me, “Hey Loyola!” She was addressing a stout young man with a trim dark beard wearing a bulky Carhartt jacket who was hustling over to the machine neighboring mine. She didn’t ask for money, only recognition from someone she knew.

My mind told me to reach into my pocket and give her a business card indicating the days and hours the community I live with opens our house for showers and meals and visiting. Should I? “A Red Line Train—heading toward the Loop—will be arriving shortly.” I could hear the rumbling of the approaching train. My finger pressed “Vend.” My body turned. My legs jogged up the steps. Without having consciously made a decision, I conceded to habit over responding to desire. I thought I wanted to catch that train, forgetting I wasn’t in a rush. Wants, skimming the surface of our consciousness, are far easier to capture than the desires that swim our depths. I never even saw what she looked like.

Lately I’ve been thinking about the ones we overlook. The thought has followed me around, applying itself to observations and conversations and readings. It interrupted me the other night while reading Arundhati Roy’s captivating novel, The God of Small Things. She writes of an encounter between “Touchable” police, and an “Untouchable” man suspected of a crime. The suspect, Velutha, is sleeping. He is awakened by a brutal beating.

If they hurt Velutha more than they intended to, it was only because any kinship, any connection between themselves and him, any implication that if nothing else, at least biologically he was a fellow creature—had been severed long ago. They were not arresting a man, they were exorcising fear. They had no instrument to calibrate how much punishment he could take. No means of gauging how much or how permanently they had damaged him (293).

They didn’t recognize him. And as cozy as it would be for me to read this and mourn the injustice of caste-based cruelty in India, the ability to overlook our fellow creatures is not confined to any one people or region. It is not a faraway problem. It is close at hand.

Awareness of this welled up a few nights ago as I listened to my roommate read an account of a shooting that had happened in a nearby neighborhood. Three were killed, two shot.  One victim was killed by a police officer who was himself injured. One victim was the officer. Information about why these shootings happened, who was involved, how the community is affected were absent. Details about the officer’s history with the force, about the noise and commotion on the scene, crowd out consideration of the human loss. There is no grieving. No asking why it happened, how it might have been prevented.

Why? Perhaps I am jumping to unfair conclusions, but my guess is this: the people who died were not people who mattered. We didn’t recognize them. For two of the men this is quite literally true, at the time of the report, they had not been identified.

As Christians we are called to see Christ in each other. But long before Godself was manifested in the body of Jesus, God spoke these words through the prophet Isaiah, “Do not hide yourself from your own flesh.” This is following instructions to set the oppressed free, share bread with the hungry, invite the homeless into your house, cloth the naked. It is followed by a prompting to “satisfy the desire of the afflicted,” and a promise that when we do these things, “the Lord will continually guide you, and satisfy your desires…” Embedded in my mind is that idea that those hungry, afflicted, naked that we are called to attend to are our own flesh, and the unabashed insight that unless instructed otherwise we will be inclined to hide ourselves from them, from our own flesh.

We have heard Jesus’ word, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, you do unto me.” Can it also be said, in light of Isaiah’s prophecy, “Whatever you do…you do unto yourself.”? If this is true, we are truly a masochistic culture. We are trained into the habit of self-forgetting. It is common, not only to lock the homeless out of our house, but to drive them from the parks. It is acceptable not only to keep our bread for ourselves but also to prohibit the hungry from foraging in dumpsters for food we have already thrown away. It is known that not only are the oppressed imprisoned but they are tortured and maligned. I have spent a lifetime developing habits of avoidance, averting my eyes from looks of recognition with acquaintances, not to mention the stranger on the street, and ignoring systemic issues that seem too big or too confusing to become involved. I have developed a habit of hiding myself from my own flesh. Breaking such a habit requires tremendous intentionality and practice. Fortunately, prophets continue to live and teach another way, individuals and groups; people who are ordinary, and radical.

To be continued…

This week’s guest blogger, Amy Nee, grew up in the middle of a large and lovely family in Central Florida.  Experiments with truth have steadily brought her North, through Kentucky, to Chicago where she is currently living and loving at the White Rose Catholic Worker.  Her musings are piling up here: amytheshow.blogspot.com.  Together, Amy and Sister Julia like to cook, pray, study non-violence, write, garden and marvel at the beauty of God’s creation.