Advent 2, Year A
Readings: Isaiah 11:1–10; Psalm 72:1–7, 18–19; (Romans 15:4–13); Matthew 3:1–12
John the Baptist is never going to get hired to sit in the mall. Isaiah is never going to turn up in the Santa Claus parade. Too fierce, too gloomy. But the message of the prophets—John, Isaiah, any of them—is welcome here. We can handle the paradox of Advent and Christmas. The birth of the Christ is a gift to be celebrated because the world really needs the gifts of hope, peace, joy and love. We decorate our spaces with lights and greenery, but we don’t fool ourselves that the world is cozy for everybody. We may whip up holiday treats, but we know that many people on the planet have it tough. We may put on party clothes to look our best, but we know the tender, the broken and the ugly parts inside us.
The bible reveals a tough love in response to tough times. In Advent we reflect on the way things are versus the way we imagine they could be. The colour of Advent is a deep purple, or a deep blue—somewhat somber, penitential even. We all know, peace is not something that is easy. When things seem peaceful, it may be because money or privilege or distance is insulating us from what’s really going on.
Our scriptures today give us this challenge. They call us to intensify our Christmas. We yearn for the traditional festivities, all the good stuff of the season.
But listen to Isaiah. First the easy part:
A shoot shall come out from the stock of Jesse,
and a branch shall grow out of his roots.
The spirit of God shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding,
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of God.
This could go on a Christmas card. All good. Then the part that’s harder to hear:
She shall not judge by what her eyes see,
or decide by what her ears hear;
but with righteousness she shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth;
she shall strike the earth with the rod of her mouth,
and with the breath of her lips she shall kill the wicked.
Kill the wicked? Where’s the holiday spirit? Listen to John, camping out beside the Jordan, beating around no bushes for the people of his day and age:
You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruit worthy of repentance. Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
Brood of vipers. Presumptions about worthiness. Axe. Trees cut down, fire. “Repent,” he tells people. “Bear fruit worthy of repentance.” These words are directed at us. Who doesn’t need to repent? And… they are directed at warlords. They are directed at those who manage giant corporations at the expense of ordinary people and the planet. They are directed at the smug, the proud.
The department store will not keep these prophet words alive. Militants, sure of their cause, will not speak these words from their pulpits and secret bunkers. Whose privilege and burden is it, then, to keep the Christ mass?
Friday was the anniversary of a terrible shooting in Montreal. December 6, 1989. A man with a gun and a terrible grudge. The sickening powerlessness of students as the attacker separated the men from the women and then started shooting the women. Today and every Advent and every day, we remember the meek of the earth, victims of violence. We celebrate peace and we work for justice.
Thursday will become known as the date of another death, this one of a single man. The bible would say he died “full of years.” Somehow he was not brought down by an assassin, nor did he die mysteriously of injuries in a racist prison. Somehow his heart was not hardened by hatred, discrimination and vicious suppression of his human rights. He was a prince of his own Xhosa people. He studied and practiced boxing, and law. He was a fervent Methodist. He was a fervent Communist. When nothing he had learned in the village, the church, the classroom seemed to make any dint on a system that was killing his nation and demeaning the whole world, he turned to violence.
Nelson Mandela was arrested on his second mission to blow up a hydro tower, doing damage to the regime’s infrastructure. He spent a generation in jail. He missed his children’s growing up, the birth of grandchildren. In prison he got to know leaders and members of other liberation movements, helped run an informal university for prisoners who had little or no education, secretly communicated with freedom fighters on the outside still struggling for justice. When people in South Africa and around the world continued to resist the wickedness of apartheid it became clear that violence would no longer be needed. Instead breath could be used for words—words of healing, words of inspiration, words of peace—and Mandela was able to use his powerful words instead of his fists or his weapons.
South Africa, like much of the world, is still a long, long way from justice. Mandela said, “I have discovered the secret that after climbing a great hill one only finds that there are many more hills to climb.” Many more hills to climb. Some of our heroes don’t get to climb any hills. They only name a hill and urge us to make the effort before they are gone: disappeared, shot, crucified. Others live long enough to see how complicated it is to build God’s dream.
I said earlier that hope, peace, joy and love are gifts. And they are. Wonderful gifts. Equity, fairness, justice—these things are not given to us, it seems. The Christ has no wand to wave to make them happen. We need hope, peace, joy and love for the long walk up the hill, this hill before us that we can see, and then, likely, another hill beyond it. Sometimes the only way peace can come is to barge in with its vision of justice.
I was lucky enough to be in the Sky Dome that day when Mandela came to speak to the children. Forty thousand children waited patiently. Energetic MCs coached then on how to greet the great man. “Amandla,” we all cried. Municipal politicians spoke. The premier of the time tried to speak. His government was attacking teachers, though, and the children started booing him. They wouldn’t let him talk. Others tried to get the children to stop. He finally gave up. Later he blamed the teachers for putting them up to it.
When Nelson Mandela and Graca Machel finally appeared on the giant TV screen, getting ready to motor across the stadium to the stage in a little golf cart, the children started cheering. It was deafening. I looked at my watch. It took a few minutes for President Mandela to reach the stage. He slowly climb the steps to the podium. He started dancing on the stage. He raised his arms to salute the children, then to try to stop the cheering. When it finally worked, it had been seven minutes of non-stop adulation. Then sustained applause kept breaking out during his speech. He told them, “You have made me feel young again.” He encouraged them to work for freedom, he made us all feel like being better, standing taller, climbing hills.
The bible gives us pictures of peace: when everyone gets to sit under their own vine and their own fig tree. That sounds like a very pleasant form of food security to me. When brothers and sisters dwell together in unity. Sounds like a society of enough, where people have figured out how to resolve those little irritants that keep popping up in families and society. Where people, even the poor, are judged with equity.
It could happen. It could all come as a sudden gift, where we don’t have to do anything, but somehow I doubt it. If peace is going to come into this world, barging in, tiptoeing, dancing, it will take commitment, faith, vision, humour. There is no world leader, no prophet, no saint who can climb that hill for us.
Tuesday, December 10th, is Human Rights Day. It’s the anniversary of the signing of the UN Declaration of Human Rights in December, 1948. Sixty-five years old. Here’s how it starts:
Whereas recognition of the inherent dignity and of the equal and inalienable rights of all members of the human family is the foundation of freedom, justice and peace in the world,
Whereas disregard and contempt for human rights have resulted in barbarous acts which have outraged the conscience of mankind, and the advent of a world in which human beings shall enjoy freedom of speech and belief and freedom from fear and want has been proclaimed as the highest aspiration of the common people, [and so on for several more whereases]…
Now, Therefore THE GENERAL ASSEMBLY proclaims THIS UNIVERSAL DECLARATION OF HUMAN RIGHTS…
We celebrate peace and we work for justice.
Mandela said, “If you want to make peace with your enemy, you have to work with your enemy. Then he becomes your partner.” Dorothy Thompson, the British scholar and peace activist, said, “Peace has to be created, in order to be maintained. It will never be achieved by passivity and quietism.”
Put out your favourite Santa if you want, your angels, your creche. But get yourself a prophet figure, too, something a bit wooly and passionate, perhaps, who looks like he or she is barging into the party, calling the world to account, to repent. Add that to your decorations. When people ask about it, tell them you’ll put it away when all is calm, all is bright.