The Ongoing Coming of Christ

Scripture readings such as Matthew 24 have some Christians looking forward to what is called a Second Coming of Jesus but have other Christians scratching their heads, trying to figure out what the words of Jesus really mean. As for me, I look forward to Jesus’ coming but these passages in Matthew have me scratching my head a lot and raising some questions.

The scenario of the Second Coming seems to suggest that God is holding back, not doing anything while waiting to see what we humans do about the world and then jumping in with a decisive intervention when we mess things up. But isn’t God vitally present all the time?

The notion that it would be better to be caught doing good when Jesus comes rather than caught doing evil makes some sense but makes God seem more of a threat than a savior. More puzzling is the complacency on the part of some people who neglect pressing social issues such as ecology on the belief that Jesus will come before we destroy the planet. It seems to me that it would be a bad idea to be caught polluting the planet rather than helping to make the planet cleaner if Jesus should return a second time. It is even more troubling when some people think war is a good thing because it will bring on the Second coming, but one would think it would not be good to be caught waging a nuclear war if Jesus comes.

The violence imagined by some in a Second Coming gives the troubling impression that the first coming, when Jesus was crucified, didn’t work out, so the second time round God will jettison the Good Cop scenario and send the Bad Cop who beats up all the bad guys. Hoping for that kind of scenario denies that the Resurrection of the crucified Lord is the defining revelation of God’s Truth and makes the violent avenger the ultimate revelation.

But if we hold fast to the crucifixion and Resurrection as the vital primary truth of what God reveals to us about Godself, then our hope for Christ’s coming will be shaped by the compassion that lead God to become a vulnerable human being who was killed by his fellow humans. The violence on the part of humans in the crucifixion should alert us that the social violence Jesus warns about is done by humans and not by God.

This reflection suggests we should dwell on the first coming, the only coming that we know has happened. And if Christ has already come, Christ is already here and not waiting in the wings to pounce on us later. The name Emmanuel means “God is with us.” St. Benedict tells us that the first step of humility involves remembering that God is always present to us and that we should likewise be present to God. If Jesus is already “God with us” than who needs a second coming? Isn’t the first coming enough? Of course, we all know that we are very capable of being not so present to God and that inattentiveness easily leads to acting in ways we wouldn’t if we were attentive to God’s presence. When we are not being attentive to God, God’s persistent presence will keep pressing in on us until God breaks in on us like a burglar or a thief in the night.

We know that crises in our personal lives and in the larger social arena can break down our usual defenses against the Divine Burglar. It isn’t that God causes these crises just to help us grow spiritually, but God does use these events to enter more deeply into our lives. After all, it is in times of crisis that we are most apt to rethink our lives and ask ourselves what is really important and where our hearts are. These crises, whether natural disasters such as hurricanes or military invasions, also raise these fundamental questions. They also create victims in whom Christ is intensely present. When we meet Christ in the victims of human violence we bring Christ deeper into the world, where Christ wants to be–that is, be with us.

I suggest, then, that we use this season of Advent to open ourselves to God’s presence to us, encouraging Christ to come into our lives. Let us go out to meet the bridegroom by having times of prayer and reflection that give us time with God. Let us meet Christ most intimately in the Eucharist. In all these things, let us look forward to the celebration of the First Coming when Jesus comes among us as a helpless baby in a manger during the coldest time of year. Let us look forward to following Jesus through the following seasons in his ministry and in his cruel death. If there should be a Second Coming, what better preparation can we make for it? We have much to look forward to.

The Living God

In today’s Gospel, (Lk. 20: 28-38) the Sadducees are using the old trick of reducing their opponent’s position to absurdity. If Jesus, like the Pharisees, believes in the resurrection of the Just, then what will he do with the hypothetical problem of a woman who married seven brothers and still died childless? This refers to the Leverite marriage commanded in Deuteronomy 25 where, if a man dies childless, the widow marries her late husband’s brother so as to bear heirs for the man who died. The scenario mockingly proposed is highly unlikely but that is not the point. Even if there are only two brothers who die without an heir, there is the question of who will be the woman’s husband in the resurrected life. And, of course, everybody who has been widowed at least once and then remarried will have the same problem.

What the Sadducees are telling Jesus is that they don’t take him seriously. They don’t want any wisdom from this troublesome traveling preacher who has shown up in Jerusalem. But Jesus still gives them a serious answer. The first part of the answer: dismissing the problem because marriage ceases to be an issue is surprising and disturbing. Given the closeness of the marriage relationship, when it is a real marriage, and considering the heartbreak for a spouse left behind, one would think that the relationship continues for eternity. And surely it does! And I would think that the lack of marriage in the resurrected life would be about a lot more than there being no need to procreate because there is no death. There is no death. This is the deeper point Jesus is making here. He makes this point with a clever argument. Since the Sadducees accepted only the Five Books of the Torah as authoritative, Jesus had to defend a belief in the resurrection from them, and Moses didn’t seem to give him any support on this. Or did he? Jesus remind the Sadducees that when God spoke in the Burning Bush, God claimed to be the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. If that is so, then how could these three patriarchs, assumed dead, not be alive? For how can the living God be a living God of the dead? As Jesus says, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is God of the living, and not of the dead. So how could the patriarchs be anything else but alive? In Raising Abel James Alison uses Jesus’ reply to show that Jesus, in his eschatological imagination, already knew that in God, there was no death, because His heavenly Abba is a living God.

As for marriage, the Book of Revelation ends with the Marriage of the Lamb with all creation. All creation includes all of us. As with all other language having to deal with god in any way, the term “marriage” is analogous. The Marriage with the Lamb has the intensity of the marriage relationship in this life but it is also very different. The big difference is that this is not a marriage of just two people, but a marriage of everybody with everybody else. Such a thing is hard to imagine, but we should expect the resurrected life to come to be hard to imagine. If we are going to allow Jesus’ words to the Sadducees to widen the imagination to the quality of the resurrected life, we need to allow these words to widen the imagination for everything, especially the good things in life. It isn’t just marriage, but friendships, music, nature in its beauty—everything that will be transformed in the resurrected life. This is why, in the end, we have to give up everything in order to have everything.

Mary and Martha Together

This little story of Mary and Martha where Martha does all the work while Mary sits at the feet of Jesus has been interpreted as referring to the relationship between action and contemplation since the early church. In his book Three Studies in Medieval Religious Social Thought Giles Constable has a long essay on the interpretations from Clement of Alexandria and Origen in the late second century through the late Middle Ages. In the Gospel story, there is sone hint of sibling rivalry, especially on Martha’s part. According to Constable’s essay, this rivalry continues through many of the countless interpreters of the story with some arguing that Mary has chosen the “best part” and that the contemplative life is superior while others champion Martha because of her fruitful charitable work.

By and large, though, a preponderance of thinkers over these centuries argue for a complementarity between the two sisters and the ways of life they are said to represent. Sometimes it is a complementarity between different lifestyles, but more usually it is a complementarity within each person. That is, each person should have elements of both Mary and Martha. This embrace of both sisters is called “the mixed life.” It is worth noting that our patron St. Gregory the Great is among the many who affirmed the mixed life, even though he had a personal yearning for the contemplative way.

There is an amusing story from the Desert Monastics that illustrates the need for both sisters. A pilgrim came to a monastery to visit. The monks asked him if he could help with their chores, but the pilgrim said that he had chosen the “better part” of Mary and did not work. Hours passed while this pilgrim spent time in reading and contemplation and finally he became hungry. He asked the monks when dinner was going to be served and was told that the monks had eaten some time ago. The pilgrim asked why he was not invited to eat with them and was told that he didn’t need earthly food because he had chosen the “better part.” I think this pilgrim learned his lesson.

This way of framing the issue of an active way and a contemplative way seems to owe more to the Greek tradition than it does to the Jewish tradition out of which the Gospels emerge. Origen and Clement certainly draw on Greek thought in this matter. However, Jesus was a person who had done many thought-provoking things and said many things that were even more thought-provoking and mysterious. Might a sensitive woman like Mary have felt moved to sit and just listen to Jesus and ponder what he says? This is precisely what Mary, the Mother of Jesus, did when confronted with the mysteries surrounding her son’s birth. (Lk. 2: 19) And then Jesus himself, faced with the mystery of his own unique calling, spent many times alone in prolonged prayer, sitting at the feet of his heavenly Abba so to speak. Jesus and his mother would have seen such prayerful pondering modeled many times in the Psalms, such as: “I have seen you in the sanctuary and beheld your power and your glory because your love is better than life,” and “On my bed I remember you; I think of you through the watches of the night. Because you are my help.” (Ps. 63: 2–3, 6–7)

Often in his epistles, St. Paul demonstrated the fruits of pondering the mystery of the Christ whom he encountered on the road to Damascus. In Colossians, for example, he says: “The Son is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn over all creation. For in him all things were created: things in heaven and on earth, visible and invisible, whether thrones or powers or rulers or authorities; all things have been created through him and for him.” (Col. 1: 15–16) It wasn’t a matter of logic but one of intuitive contemplation that led Paul to realize that the One who called him out of his persecutory mania was not only the forgiving victim on the Cross but also the One who participated in creating the world, something only God can do. But there is more. Paul’s prayerful pondering brought him to this even deeper insight: “For God was pleased to have all his fullness dwell in him, and through him to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven, by making peace through his blood, shed on the cross.” (Col. 1: 19–20) Paul’s contemplative insight deepened his sense that Jesus was so filled with God as to be God and, more important by far, this God was devoted to a costly reconciliation where he absorbed the rage on the part of Paul as well as that of the rest of us.

Jesus clearly led a mixed life of action and contemplation, and it is noteworthy that his mother, Mary, was held up as a model of the mixed life by many medieval writers, since Mary not only pondered the mystery of her son’s birth but had to take care of him day after day. Paul himself is clearly yet another model of the mixed life. Although we tend to consider St. Gregory’s to be a contemplative monastery, there is much work we all need to do to minister to each other and our numerous guests. With that said, Mary of Bethany had been pretty well knocked off the map since the later Middle Ages until a number of people in recent decades began to realize that their activism needed to be tempered by sitting at the feet of Jesus. It is true enough that we should respond to Jesus by doing as the Good Samaritan did, but we also need to respond to Jesus by taking time to open our hearts in silence to Him as did Mary of Bethany.

Bring Peace to Each House

The mission of Jesus’ seventy disciples in Luke is filled with breathless excitement and peril. There is an urgency to the mission as “the harvest is plentiful, but the workers are few.” (Lk. 10: 2) On the other hand, Jesus warns his disciples that he is sending them out “like lambs among wolves.” (Lk. 10: 3).

The tone of the mission is expressed in the phrase: “Peace be to this house.” (:l. 10: 5) This offer of peace makes the disciples vulnerable to the reaction of the members of the house. In the best case scenario, somebody there promotes peace and welcomes the disciples who then accept what hospitality they are given. When peace is offered and accepted, it becomes dynamic throughout the house that has received it as the disciples heal the sick and announce that the Kingdom of God has come near. All this has the flavor of Jesus’ inaugural sermon that announced a new Jubilee. That is, announcing good news to the poor and freeing captives. We can see this missionary journey, then, as Jesus’ disciples spreading the Jubilee throughout the country.

As with Jesus first announcement of the Jubilee, there is no litany of doctrines or list of rules but a spirit of living, like the Spirit that was upon Isaiah and then upon Jesus at the beginning of his ministry. In his mission to Galatia, we see Paul, in his way, proclaiming the same Jubilee of good news to the poor and freedom of the captives. In this case, freedom from the Jewish Law and freedom for Christ. He celebrates this freedom through reconciliation so that anyone who is caught in a sin is restored “gently.” The spirit of this reconciliation is to “carry each other’s burdens, and in this way you will fulfill the law of Christ.” (Gal. 6: 2) Perhaps we can see this as the essence of the kingdom that has come near. Although there have been attempts to define the carrying of one another’s burdens, as Charles Williams famously did with his doctrine of substitution, it is best to see the mutual bearing of burdens as a Spirit-filled shape of spreading peace within the house that has received it.

But what about the wolves? Jesus tell the disciples that if a town rejects them, they should wipe off the dust from their feet and move on. (Lk. 10: 11) The wolves don’t seem to have done any real harm. But then Jesus goes on to say that it will be better for Tyre and Sidon than for the towns that rejected the disciples. Far from threatening these towns with divine vengeance, Jesus is actually warning us that the systemic violence embodied by these past cultures is about to be a lot worse in the present. Lots of wolves here. The few households of peace are surrounded by imperial strife and persecution. Paul’s church in Galatia was in this situation and we find ourselves in an even worse maelstrom of social rage. (It will go even worse for Western Civilization than it did to the towns that rejected the disciples.)

Maintaining a sense of peace in the midst of all this turmoil is excruciatingly difficult. We easily become enraged just from reading the news. What if we should actually face these enraged people in real life? It is hard to believe that the disciples had been so successful in their mission, but then if Satan fell from the sky, where else would Satan be now than in the midst of the wolves? This is where we must allow the peace we offered to return back to us and then vent our frustrated anger by dusting off our feet. Otherwise, we are drawn into the surrounding rage and all peace is lost. In the midst of this turmoil, bearing one another’s burdens is a practical way of developing the spirit of Jubilee, all the more so when we are all overburdened by the stress of it all. Bearing each other’s burdens fulfills the Law of Christ because this practice takes us right into the heart of what Jesus did for all of us on the Cross. Our house of peace in the mission of the Seventy seems small and weak, and it is. Paul’s household in Galatia was small and weak, too. But could the oppressive rage around us also mean there is the potential of a plentiful harvest if we can bring peace to others so as to bring the Kingdom of God closer?

Giving Everything and More

The meal at Bethany served by Martha seems to be an ordinary meal but in reality it is extraordinary. To begin with, John explicitly says that it is six days before Passover. This puts the meal in the context of the most solemn festival of the Jewish year. For another thing, Lazarus, the man Jesus raised from the dead, is present. The imminent offering of the paschal lamb and resurrection are both brought together. Even more extraordinary is the extravagant anointing of Jesus’ feet with precious perfume by Mary, the sister of Lazarus and Martha. Jesus interprets Mary’s action as a preparation for his burial, which he seems to expect is imminent, thus tying his death with the both the Passover and Resurrection. Judas’s protest over this “waste” shows that the hostility against Jesus has reached the inner circle of his disciples.

All four Gospels have a story of a woman who pours expensive ointment or perfume over Jesus, but the differences are striking. Matthew and Mark are very close parallels. Just before the Passover and Jesus’ Passion, an unnamed woman enters the house of Simon the Leper, who lives in Bethany, pours the ointment and dries Jesus’ feet with her hair. The disciples as a group protest the “waste.” This is much the same story as in John except the host is different. (Mt. 26: 6–13), Mk. 14: 3–9) Luke tells the same story except that it is placed much earlier in his Gospel and is not connected to the Passover and the Passion. (Lk. 7: 36–50) That the anonymous woman is called “a sinner” adds a sharp edge to the story. The host is Simon and he is identified as a Pharisee. He grumbles that Jesus should have known the woman was a sinner and elicits a famous parable on sin and repentance. The woman in Matthew and Mark, like the sinful woman in Luke, is so froward with Jesus that she too is considered a loose women if not a sinner. Mary of Bethany in John is more respectable and is a hostess rather than an intruder, which gives the story a very different feel from the other three, but this respectability makes the gesture all the more shocking. Respectable women don’t act this way.

It is intellectually interesting to piece together the symbolism in John and the relationships between the four versions of the story. If we let all of this seep deeply into us, it can be quite spiritually stimulating. But what really connects the women in all four versions is the extravagance of the woman which is warmly commended by Jesus. Even if we are shocked by these women (or woman), we should be even more shocked at ourselves over how little we care about Jesus. Are we like Simon the Pharisee who invited Jesus to his table but showed no affection? Are we like the apostles who complained about the waste? To this day, we tend to look down on this woman, thinking the worst of her, when Jesus would have us look up to her as an example of apostolic zeal. It is worth noting that in Luke Mary of Bethany is the one who sits at the feet of Jesus listening to this teaching while Martha (as in John) serves the meal. Here, Mary of Bethany shows her ardor but in a more contemplative way.

Isaiah proclaims God’s promise to “give water in the wilderness, rivers in the desert.” In this generosity, God is pouring Godself out as extravagantly as the women with the ointments, and surely God does need see this extravagance as“wasteful.” (Is. 43: 19–21) When Paul writes to the Philippians that he is pressing on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus,” his words gush out like ointment flowing out of control. (Phil. 3: 12–14) Bob Dylan expresses this gush in his song “Pressing on” which repeats these words over and over with greater and greater intensity that becomes overwhelming.

The women and Paul return the overflowing love of God back to God while the rest of us sit back and grumble at the unseemliness of it all. Do we not realize that the women who let their hair down and gush out their love for Jesus will also gush out that same commitment to Jesus who is present in the poor? Meanwhile, the complaining disciples, and especially Judas, don’t really mean to help the poor or anybody else. More importantly, do we not realize that on the Cross, Jesus’ blood will pour forth as did the ointment poured over him? It isn’t that all of us have to be as emotional as these women and Paul, but we do need to be as deeply committed to Jesus so as approach the deep commitment Jesus shows to us. We should take to heart Leonard Bernstein’s directions to a choir and orchestra: “Give me everything you’ve got, and then a crescendo.”

A Brief Message for Ash Wednesday

I am tempted to feel that Ash Wednesday, Lent, and the Paschal Mystery of Passiontide and Eastertide have all been upstaged by world politics, most especially the Russian invasion of Ukraine. What are a few ashes on the forehead compared to armored tanks? The only way to answer the question is to receive the ashes and God’s gift of penitence that they symbolize and then receive the Body and Blood of our Lord in the bread and wine, which is to take into ourselves the Paschal Mystery. Jesus himself was shoved offstage by those who held center-stage and crucified outside the city. (Heb. 13: 12) That is, offstage has become the new center stage where we, too, follow Christ.

How About a Jubilee?

After celebrating the Baptism of Jesus and the Wedding at Cana with its Eucharistic overtones, Luke’s lectionary cycle takes us to visions of the Body of Christ as community, what Martin Luther King, Jr. whose birthday we celebrated this week, called “the Beloved Community. This theme is most appropriate for the octave for Christian unity.

The reading from Nehemiah 8 gives us a glimpse of the initiation of the body of worship that became the synagogue. Ezra reads the Law (the Torah) and includes explanation, which is the heart of synagogue worship to this day. Nehemiah and Ezra conclude with these comforting words: “This day is holy to our Lord; and do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.” (Neh. 8: 10) Unfortunately these two leaders also thought that social cohesion required the expulsion of all wives who are not sufficiently “pure” to be part of this emerging Jewish community, a recurring problem of creating unity through division.

In his first Epistle to the Corinthians, St. Paul counters the exclusionary behavior in this church with his famous analogy of the human body with the Church as the Body of Christ. This analogy gives us a powerful vision of unity in diversity with each part interacting with all the others. If one part of the body hurts, all parts hurt. This analogy also reminds of Martin Luther King Jr.’s famous words: “Nobody is free until we are all free.” The implication is that if we try to exert our “freedom” by expelling others, we are not free.

The Gospel reading from Luke portrays the opening of Jesus’ teaching ministry. As the forerunner John the Baptist quoted Isaiah’s words about Israel’s return from the Babylonian exile as God’s preparing a way for the people to return over rough country made smooth, Jesus began by quoting Isaiah’s words about what a settled people should do: Have a jubilee. The Jubilee was designed to make high economic mountains and low valleys more level; to give everybody a new start by cancelling crippling debts. This really was good news for the poor who particularly needed another start. But there is more: Isaiah also envisioned freeing captives and giving sight to the blind. Could it be that economic injustice makes all of us blind to what is really going on? In any case, Jesus is broadening the scope of the Jubilee to apply to everything we can do to strengthen community. To return to Paul’s analogy of the Church as Christ’s Body: it is as if some parts of the body swelled and caused other parts to shrink. Maybe the swollen parts thought that was a good deal, but the reality is that the whole body, not least the swollen parts, is sick when that happens. Economic issues are unmistakable in Luke but a Jubilee is about and for everybody. So how do all of us participate in the Jubilee? What about problems of exclusion? Martin Luther King, Jr. dreamed of a society where the exclusionary practices of race would no longer tear the nation and the churches apart. More important, King sought to achieve this end through reconciliation rather than through adversarial approaches. Isaiah had also proclaimed the freeing of captives. Besides re-evaluating our prison system, we should reflect on how we imprison each other and most of all ourselves in resentment and vengefulness.

The only words of Jesus that Luke quotes are: “Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.” (Lk. 4: 21) This is particularly startling. According to Leviticus, a Jubilee happened every seven years with a super Jubilee every seventy years. A Jubilee was something to look forward to, but Jesus is telling us to celebrate the Jubilee NOW. Not next week or tomorrow, but NOW. That puts all of us on the hot seat right now and calls us to consider what we can do NOW to participate in the Jubilee. Since Jesus’ quoting Isaiah is the beginning of Jesus’ public ministry, it stands to reason that the rest of the Gospel shows us ways to live the Jubilee. That is, Luke’s Gospel is a Jubilee Gospel. The famous Lukan parables of the Good Samaritan and the Prodigal Son give us powerful examples of what Jubilee looks like.

I will close with an example from a presentation by the black theologian Julia Robinson Moore in North Carolina whom I heard a few months ago. She said that a white parish with many descendants of slave owners offered an apology to her black congregation for their enslavement of the forebears of her congregation. This may not seem like much given the enormity of slavery’s cruelty, but Julia said the apology was both significant and meaningful for her and her congregation. Their acceptance of the apology is another act of Jubilee. Even if we start small, we can hope for an increase of sixty, eighty and a hundredfold.

NOTE: AN organization dedicated to relief of medical debt has just come to my attention. St. John’s, Midland, MI is currently running a campaign for debt relief in this area. https://ripmedicaldebt.org/

God’s Christmas Gift

How can God possibly become a real and true human being? We don’t know. God knows, but God isn’t telling. That is probably because I can’t imagine God giving an answer that would be intelligible to humans. All we know is that God became a human being. Impossible, right? Well, if it really happened, then it isn’t really impossible; it just seems that way. And it is indeed impossible for humans. Only God can do this trick.

So what’s the big deal about God becoming a human being? The big deal, which is an infinitely big deal, is that humans can become God. Impossible! Well, yes. For humans it most certainly is impossible, notwithstanding the many people who have thought they could and failed for all their delusions. Once again, only God can do this trick.

Many Christians are astonished at the prospect although this belief goes back to the early Christian centuries and is enshrined in the second Epistle of St. Peter where Peter says that we become “partakers of the divine nature.” (2 Pet. 1:4) It sounds as presumptuous to some as it sounds impossible, and it is presumptuous and impossible if one thinks in terms of humans having divinity within themselves that they can tap into at will. (Hence the many failures.) But note that I said it is only God who can do this trick. And it doesn’t mean we become “god” in some sort of fusion. If we dissolve, there is no relationship between ourselves and God ,which is a prerequisite for participation in God’s nature. Becoming partakers of the divine nature is a gift which God makes possible by entering human nature and becoming a human being. The thing about a gift is that there must be both a giver and a receiver. So the question is: are we willing to receive the gift of God’s nature or not?

The question is pretty abstract in the terms discussed so far, but the story of Jesus’ birth in Luke brings the question down to earth. By setting the story in the context of the Roman Empire’s exertion of power through the census taken by Quirinius, Luke sets the stage for what the world is like, the world that will welcome Jesus and the gift of deification–or not. That the only shelter Joseph could find when Mary delivered her child was a stable, suggests that Jesus was not welcome to this world, a point made also in John’s Gospel. (Jn. 1: 11-12) The ubiquitous manger scenes make this setting very sweet and romantic, but if one were to feel the cold and smell the smells, it wouldn’t be so romantic. The story emphasizes the vulnerability of the child in spite of that child’s being God, capable of sharing his godhead with us. So far, only Mary and Joseph have welcomed the child into world and are taking care of him as well as they can. In contrast to this stark scene, we have the shepherds in the field seeing the Glory of the Lord and hearing the singing of the heavenly hosts. This reminds me of the double level in Revelation which draws the contrast between the human violence on earth and the rejoicing heavenly choruses in Heaven. For all their fear, the shepherds also receive the Christ Child. At this point, the only welcomers comes from the bottom of society, with the shepherds being the dregs. No red carpets from royalty or even a decent shelter offered by somebody of modest means. So if we think we are above the lowest rank of society, how about us? We should worry that it is easier for a camel to get through the eye of a needle than for a well-healed person to accept the gift of deification.

During Jesus’ life, we see much welcoming as crowds of people follow Jesus to receive healing and to listen to his words. Many of them are of the lowest classes but there are a few higher-ups who welcome Jesus, at least up to a point, with Simon the Leper being an example. But with the religious and political leadership, not so much. Religious and politicians should ponder this. When the Empire struck back after Jesus cleansed the temple, the welcome of just a few days before evaporated and Jesus died on the cross, alone, or almost alone. Not much of a welcome there.

There is more to welcoming God than welcoming a certain baby born in a stable some two thousand years ago. We can do this sentimentally in prayerful exercises and then get on with life. But if we really welcome God, we welcome everything Jesus said and did throughout his life. Which is to say we welcome the self-giving of God entering humanity, and we don’t try to become “god” on our own terms since welcoming God’s humanity involves welcoming our own. More challenging, we must welcome everybody else, even if they don’t welcome us, since Jesus welcomed them and still does. More challenging still, the gift of God’s nature means serving others, not asking them to serve us. Receiving the gift of God’s divinity gives us the gift of rejoicing with the heavenly hosts who sang to the shepherds, but it also gives us the gift of poverty and the vulnerability of a stable and then the vulnerability of the cross. The gift of participation in the divine nature is free, but it is also just as costly for us as it is for God.

Preparing the Way of the Lord

Advent is an odd sort of beginning for the liturgical year. In one respect , it is the beginning of the story of Jesus, starting with his conception and St. John the Baptist’s preaching as a forerunner of Jesus, but in another respect, Advent is thought to be about the end of the story, the end of the world with the “second coming” of Jesus. Or is it? John the Baptist is a transitionary character who points to a great good God will do without knowing what it is going to be. Might the “end” of the story really be another transition? Malachi’s image of God being like a refiner’s fire (Mal. 3:2) sounds ominous and violent, a perfect image for God burning up the world in a fit of anger. But a refiner’s fire is not destructive; it is constructive, even healing. As a refiner’s fire restores metals to their best condition, God’s refining fire purifies the sons of Levi so that they can offer their sacrifices. The refining fire is not an ending but a new beginning. In what other ways might the ministry of John the Baptist be a new beginning for us today?

Luke has John begin his preaching with a quote from Isaiah which stands by itself with no elaboration. John’s quote features the leveling of valleys and mountains in order to “prepare the way of the Lord.” The image of leveling can be threatening as it calls up fears of violent revolutionaries leveling everything to the ground out of anger and resentment. But this is not the kind of leveling Isaiah and John are envisioning. Isaiah was proclaiming the leveling of valleys and mountains in order to remove the obstacles between Babylonia and Jerusalem so that the Jews could return safely to their homeland. The way to prepare for the Lord, then, is to remove obstacles that we put between each other. In an online discussion of this reading, it was suggested that one way we smooth the way for others is to create barrier-free access for handicapped people although it was noted that we still have more progress to make since the distance of a barrier-free route can be quite extensive. In any case, this image gives us a small parable of the greater project of removing obstacles placed in the paths of the helpless. One way to do this would be to pass legislation that makes voting easier for people instead of harder. On paper or in a spoken sermon, removing barriers may sound like a calm action, but in reality, we are, first of all, removing obstacles in ourselves that cause us to stumble in the way of the Lord. Since we are likely to find that many of these obstacles have been mistaken for parts of ourselves instead of invasive infections, removing these obstacles may well feel like being refined by fire. Another way to say the same thing is to note that the Way of the Lord is from Empire whether in the household or a nation-state (Babylon) to Jerusalem, the freedom of a new beginning of life without obstacles between each other and God. Hence the importance of Luke meticulously listing the imperial rulers three times in the first three chapters of his Gospel.

In parallel to John’s introducing his ministry with an otherwise unelaborated quote from Isaiah, Luke has Jesus inaugurate his ministry with another quote from Isaiah: “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” We do well to place these two quotes side by side as they add up to a fuller program of preparing the way of the Lord by freeing the oppressed from the obstacles we place before them..

In John’s Gospel, John the Baptist famously said of his relationship with Jesus: “He must increase, but I must decrease.” (Jn. 3: 30) As my confessor of many years reminded me often, we must be like John the Baptist: decreasing so that Christ may increase within each of us. Letting Christ increase in us, of course has us decreasing ourselves by removing the obstacles in ourselves so as to prepare the way of the Lord.

Not One Stone Upon Another

It is one of many signs that Jesus’ disciples still don’t “get it” when they ooh and ah about the beautiful temple that Herod has built. Haven’t they noticed that Jesus doesn’t see Herod as a model ruler? Did they notice that Jesus wrecked havoc in the temple? Did they think about what the gesture might mean? The chief priests most certainly were thinking very hard about it and their thoughts were very hard. If any of the above notions were going through their heads, they might not have been so startled when Jesus predicted that “not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” (Mk. 13: 2)

It is important to realize, as pretty much all biblical scholars have noted, that prophecy is not fortune telling about the future, but is a word of where the present trends are leading unless there is a change of course. For example, many prophets warned that the injustices in their time were destroying the social fabric and were going to lead to a violent end. Throughout his teaching, Jesus gave a threefold set of warnings: 1) Social injustices connected to the temple were unraveling the religious system. (The scribes and Pharisees “devour widows’ houses.” (Mk. 12: 40.) 2) The threat of rebelling against Rome will redound on the Jewish people. 3) The religious leaders and the imperial leaders were on course to commit lethal violence against Jesus, as he warned in the Parable of the Evil Workers in the Vineyard. (Mk. 12: 1–12)

We can see readily enough that the social violence is human violence through and through and it has nothing to do with God. Mark’s Gospel also tells a story of human collective violence directed at one person who is deemed responsible for the social crisis in Judea. If social ills of institutionalized violence and scapegoating are the work of humans and not God, what about the apocalyptic violence in Mark 13? Jesus does mention earthquakes, which are natural disasters and not God’s doing, but mostly Jesus warns of “wars and rumor of wars,” and nations rising against nation. (Mk. 13: 7–8) Once again, we have human acts, only on a grander scale. Here we have Jesus’ warning of the ineluctable results of staging a violent rebellion against Rome. This violence causes social ties to break down to the extent that “brother will betray brother to death, and a father his child, and children will rise against parents and have them put to death.” (Mk. 13: 12) Jesus then warns of being handed over to councils and then standing “before governors and kings.” (Mk. 13: 9) The chaotic violence circles back to collective violence against a few victims. The technical term for religious cataclysmic literature is “apocalypse,” which means unveiling. Many people think that apocalyptic literature reveals God, but actually it reveals the truth of human violence.

In this analysis of violence, I have been greatly helped by the French thinker René Girard who argued that from the dawn of civilization, there has been a tendency of humans to solve social problems by suddenly gaining up on a victim or a small group of victims with lethal results. The peace following each gruesome episode was so dramatic that it was seen as an “act of god.” It is no wonder that societies founded on collective violence would be sustained by ongoing social violence. There is no time to explain Girard’s arguments further, but it is worth noting that all the Gospels end with the story of the collective murder of Jesus while stressing the human action that caused it. Girard also warns us that although the Gospel Story has opened the way to renewing society through concern for previously overlooked victims, it also greases the breaks that collective violence had previously put on social crises with the result that such crises spin out of control with no end in sight. This is precisely what we see going on all around us as I speak.

Although Jesus’ warnings about violence include violence that one might suffer, such as the violence Jesus suffered and his followers would suffer in the future, the warnings mostly concern inflicting violence upon others. That is, he is warning his listeners to refrain from the violence of social injustice, the violence of collective violence against a victim, and the violence of social upheaval that will only escalate violence. There is much fully justified therapeutic concern for victims of violence, but the trauma of committing violence is also severe. In fact, on a spiritual level, it is more devastating. What is so tragic about the trauma of inflicting violence is that so often one thinks that it is violence that reveals God. Jesus is telling us that we need to make a 180-degree turn to see God. An oppressive social order where some people are perpetual victims is not a God-given order. As Matthew 25 show us clearly, God is seen only in the victims of such a social order. Others turn to the social chaos of social upheaval, proclaiming that God is in the violence. But in Mark, Jesus makes it clear that God has nothing to do with the violence. The designated disrupter of the social order is the one believed to be designated by God for death or exile. In Isaiah, the people thought that the “Suffering Servant” was “stricken by God.” (Is. 53: 4) Mark tells us at the end of the Gospel that God is seen in a man dying in agony and despair on a cross. Keeping our attention fixed there will be our only defense before the powerful, which isn’t much of a defense. But it is the only way we can point to God in a world that is falling apart. Any other way will leave us with not one stone left upon another.

For introductory essays on René Girard, see:

Violence and the Kingdom of God

Living Stones in the House of the Forgiving Victim

Living with our Shared Desires