Sunday, December 22, 2013

Advent 4

In today’s Gospel,
Joseph finds himself in a delicate situation;
the pregnancy of Mary, his betrothed,
has put him into quite a quandary.
He knows that the baby is not his
and so he reasonably (though wrongly) presumes
that the father must be some other man.
Our Gospel writer tells us that, “he was a righteous man,
yet unwilling to expose her to shame.”
He was a righteous man, a just man,
which in the first-century Jewish context
meant that he obeyed the Law that God had given to Moses,
and the Law that God had given to Moses said,
“If there is a young woman, a virgin who is betrothed,
and a man comes upon her… and lies with her,
you shall bring them both out to the gate of the city
and there stone them to death. . . . Thus shall you purge
the evil from your midst” (Deuteronomy 22:23-24).
Harsh justice, but justice all the same,
intended to make sure that a man’s heirs were indeed his,
which was crucial for the peaceful functioning
of a patriarchal society.
Harsh justice, but justice all the same,
intended to purge from the community the evil of injustice.

But, our Gospel tells us,
while Joseph was a righteous man, a just man,
he was also a merciful man.
Though he would have been within his rights to do so,
he did not want to expose Mary to shame,
which, given the Law, meant to expose her to death.
She was his beloved,
and in his heart mercy called him to go beyond justice
and to let Mary’s life be spared,
merely breaking off the betrothal.
And after the angel appeared to him in his dream
and showed to him how the Spirit of God
was at work in these events,
Joseph’s heart opened to even greater mercy:
casting aside all fear of shame and of transgressing the Law,
he took Mary into his home so that they might live together.

The fourth-century theologian John Chrysostom
saw in Joseph’s small act of human mercy
a hint of the great act of divine mercy that was to come.
He wrote: “It is like the sun not yet arisen, but from afar
more than half the world is already illuminated by its light.
So did Christ, when about to rise from the womb –
even before his birth –
cast light upon the world” (Homily on Matthew, 4.4).
In Joseph’s act of mercy
the grace of God is already showing itself
and we begin to understand what it is
that we will celebrate at Christmas:
mercy that goes beyond what justice requires.

But God’s mercy goes beyond even the mercy shown by Joseph,
as the brightness of the sun outshines the pale light of predawn,
for while Mary was innocent of all sin, we are not.
We human beings have misused our freedom,
and chosen to turn away from God our creator,
and we justly suffer the effects
of a life lived apart from the creative source of life itself:
conflict and violence and, ultimately, unending death.
And God could have justly left us on our own,
exposed to the shame of our own injustice.
But we are God’s beloved,
and in the very heart of God
divine justice is enfolded within divine mercy.
And behold, a virgin conceived and bore a son,
and God came to live with us
and the light that dimly shone in Joseph’s act of human mercy
burst forth in all is blinding brilliance
and purged the darkness of evil from our hearts.

In Advent we still await the coming of that light.
We await the light of mercy that surpasses justice,
and we pray that, like Joseph, our merciful actions also
might be dim reflections of the divine mercy.

Many find this to be a season that tries their mercy.
Think about it: this is the season
when we drag ourselves through crowded malls
to shop for gifts for people
that we don’t really even like very much.
This is the season
when we are forced to spend time with family members
whom we manage successfully to avoid for the rest of the year.
This is the season
when we brood over old hurts and past insults,
generosity unappreciated and favors unreturned,
when we want to hold people accountable; when we want justice.
But the coming of God to live with us is not about justice;
it is about mercy.
The birth of Emmanuel is not about what we deserve
but about the forgiving love that God shows to us,
and which God calls us to show to each other.
This is the season when the dawn of Christ is already appearing.
Come, let us celebrate this feast of mercy
by following the example of Joseph
and letting God’s mercy and forgiveness
fill our hearts and guide our actions.

Sunday, December 8, 2013

Advent 2

Readings: Isaiah 11:1-10; Romans 15:4-9; Matthew 3:1-12

“On that day, a shoot shall sprout
from the stump of Jesse…”
On that day.
On what day?
Even leaving aside the question of who Jesse is
(he’s King David’s father, by the way),
it would certainly be helpful to know when it is
that this mysterious descendant of Jesse will appear:
this one upon whom the Spirit of God will rest,
this one who will judge the poor with justice
and decide aright for the land’s afflicted,
this one who will be girded with justice and faithfulness,
who with his words will strike those without mercy.
When is “that day” when the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb
and the lion shall eat hay like the ox
and the knowledge of God will flood the world?
The prophet Isaiah doesn’t tell us;
he simply says that “on that day”
the root of Jesse will be set up as a sign for the nations,
so as to draw all people into God’s kingdom.

Matthew, the author of our Gospel reading,
believes he knows when “that day” occurs.
He tells us that “in those days”
John the Baptist appeared
preaching that God’s kingdom was at hand.

“In those days.”
The phrase in Matthew’s Greek is almost identical
to the ancient Greek translation of the book of Isaiah
that Matthew would have known.
That day that the world has been waiting for?
That day of justice and mercy and peace
when the wolf will be the guest of the lamb?
That day when the earth shall be filled
with the knowledge of the Lord?
John the Baptist appeared two thousand years ago
saying that this is that day.
John arrived to tell us to prepare the way of the Lord
by producing good fruit as evidence of our change of heart,
because the one sprung from the stump of Jesse
was about to appear with his winnowing fan in his hand,
to gather the wheat and to burn the chaff,
to judge the poor with justice
and to strike the ruthless with his words.
With the appearance of Jesus we can truly say
that this is that day.

So, was John wrong?
As far as I can tell,
the poor are still often unjustly judged
and the ruthless seem often to go unrebuked.
Knowledge of the Lord does not seem
to be in particularly abundant supply
and I don’t see wolves and lambs
spending much quality time together.

Indeed, Jesus, the Lamb of God,
himself fell prey to the human wolves
who tore his flesh and hung him on a cross.
The shoot who sprang from the root of Jesse,
the one upon whom God’s Sprit rested
with the fullness of her gifts,
was himself cut down and cast into the fire of death.

So perhaps we still await that day of which Isaiah spoke.

Yet our faith tells us that John the Baptist was right.
The Lamb who was slain has been raised
and reigns gloriously,
not simply at God’s right hand in heaven,
but even now within the hearts of his disciples.
That day is truly this day
when, as Paul says in our second reading,
Christ’s followers think in harmony with one another
and with one voice glorify God;
when they welcome one another
even as they have been welcomed by Christ.

But on this day, the transformed world spoken of by Isaiah
is present to us primarily in sign and mystery.
We sense it when we welcome a child
through the waters of baptism,
or when we gather at the altar to glorify God
and to be fed by Christ the Lamb.
We feel it when people respond to tragedy with generosity
or when a leader acts, not in his or her own interest,
but in the interest of justice and mercy.
But these are only signs, only glimpses,
and it takes faith to read these signs,
to know that this day really is
that day of God’s great triumph.

So in Advent we wait.
We wait for the feast of Christmas
when we celebrate that day
when Jesus Christ was born,
the great sign to the world
of the mysterious real presence
of God’s kingdom of love among us.
But we also wait for that day,
the day when God’s kingdom
will be present to us
no longer in sign and mystery,
no longer dimly perceived,
but in the clear and certain light
that flows from the Christ the Lamb,
filling with earth with the knowledge of the Lord
as water covers the sea.