The prophet says, “shout for joy”
– and the world scoffs.
Zephaniah sings “be glad and exult with all your heart”
– and the nation calls it mockery.
St. Paul commands “rejoice in the Lord always”
– while a small town in Connecticut is shattered.
The Apostle advises, “have no anxiety”
– and people of good will feels contempt rising within.
And the Baptist preaches good news,
– and we, what do we feel?
I know that preaching is not about personal venting,
that a homily is not an opportunity
for emotional display or self-revelation by some clerical type,
not an excuse for unleashing one’s deepest feelings
of anger, or joy or despair.
Yet in these dark days,
in the wake of such horrific violence,
as the details of the massacre of children and teachers,
of the innocent and the wise – of so many beloved,
flood the airwaves,
I fear that preaching without some revelation
of my shock – my repugnance,
my broken-heartedness in view of these vile events,
would be a sputtering of unusually empty words.
Shock and total bafflement in the wake of such a heinous crime
soon gave way, at least in me,
first to a deeply felt anger,
and then, if truth be told, to lingering despair ….
A despair about the goodness of humanity.
A despair about the direction of our society.
And even despair about what religion,
and this liturgical season, this eucharist,
have to offer in the face of such monstrous inhumanity.
To my way of thinking, Advent is difficult enough.
I had labored for hours crafting a homily
that tried to make sense out of this schizophrenic season
with cards and carols about peace on earth
and good will toward all,
when crowds are trampling each other in the malls
and commerce dominates the season.
I had devised a relatively clever response to the moment,
even about the figure of John the Baptist
as a bit of a bipolar fellow – a curmudgeon –
replete with snippets from another beloved curmudgeon,
to illustrate how the grumpy can still be a source of good news.
But this is no longer about curmudgeons
or the Grinch that stole Christmas.
This is about the incarnation of evil,
if not in an individual – then certainly in his actions.
And what can religion, or Christianity or Advent supply
in response to such unimaginable carnage,
especially on a Sunday so filled with “joyous language”?
On a Sunday traditionally known as Guadete
or “rejoice” Sunday?
On a Sunday when we light the pink candle
intended to indicate a lightening of the season
as the birth of the Lord draws near,
but now sadly symbolic
of the slaughter of the innocents
of the blood of the lambs
of the annihilation of first graders?
Some have suggested that we leave that candle unlit
representing the emptiness, darkness, joylessness
of this moment
and reflecting the extinguished lives of the innocent
from one small town.
But we light that candle
with its hues reminiscent of Valentine pink
as a tragic sign of shattered hearts.
Maybe the whole of this evening is an unwelcome symbol
of the onset of darkness …
as at sunset today the feasts of lights,
the festival of Hanukah for our Jewish sisters and brothers,
Menorahs have grown dim …
the earth slips deeper into darkness,
and makes me wonder if the earth too feels despair?
If society is mute before evil,
if religion is bankrupt before God,
was Karl Marx right?
Is religion just a drug, a diversion, an opium of the people
sedating us in the face of the satanic,
inoculating us against the pandemic of violence
that sweeps our globe,
distracting us from doing justice
like banning assault weapons,
or unmasking some free speech language
as a misguided strategy for personal liberty at any cost,
including the pulverization of the common good?
While I admit I am tempted by a Marxian analysis
of religion as the food of fools,
the pursuit of the duped
the hobby of the hapless,
it is then that I am assaulted by the Baptist.
No fool – no dupe – not hapless.
While the various gospels have John announcing good news,
he was not some starry-eyed optimist
enamored of the paparazzi who followed him
or the sinners who heeded his tough words.
John the Baptist is one of the great realists of the Gospel
who early on understands that it is not all about him.
He was not the Messiah.
He was not the Anointed One.
He is not God’s most beloved.
Furthermore, he understood what it must take
not only to recognize the messiah,
but to accept that most unconventional messiah into one’s life:
it takes humility,
it takes justice,
it takes self-sacrifice,
and it even takes an ability for self-doubt
at first glance though quite-self assured in today’s readings.
John is also deeply in touch with his unworthiness,
his second class status,
his preparatory role in the unfolding of the messianic reign,
and in other Gospels, like that of Mark,
he is even depicted in prison questioning if he did the right thing,
if Jesus really was the one,
or if he wagered his life on a fake, a charlatan, a wannabe.
If John the Baptist was a religious patsy
he was one in the mold of Gandhi or Martin Luther King,
who knew that his preaching and bold demands
for justice and cloak sharing,
for modest and upright living,
and challenges to stop the extortion and greed,
and anything that would demote the common good,
would cost him his life.
Not a matter of “if” but “when,”
but he wagered his life and lived not knowing the “when,”
and not even absolutely sure that Jesus
was the reason for the season.
And he did so because he was seized by the spirit of God,
a spirit of unquenchable fire,
that fueled a compelling belief
that God’s reign was possible,
that a common good could flourish and justice thrive,
but never, never without suffering;
never obliterating all evil,
and never without placing one’s own head on the chopping block.
This past Friday, as the innocents were being massacred,
I witnessed a holy sadness
visiting a family whose teenage son is in the last stages of life,
dying from brain cancer.
As I stood at the foot of his bed,
I was privileged to watch his mother
with her head propped up on her elbow,
lying next to her son on one side,
while his father, kneeling on the other side,
watched over them both.
And refracted through this Advent prism,
this season of joyful promises in the midst of suffering,
of greetings of peace on earth while wars abound,
of a divine infant while hoards of Syrian children die
from mortar shells and starvation,
through this twisted refraction and oxymoronic season,
I perceived a kind of inverted crèche,
a paradoxical nativity,
a blessed sadness,
a vibrant brokenness,
as this holy family was birthing their son into death
with the fierce hope of a final birthing into eternal life.
Tradition has it that the turning point in the Buddha’s life
was his experience of four sights:
a sick person, an old person, a deceased person and a monk.
These experiences allowed the questions stirring within him
to come to focus, particularly
“How does one deal with the inevitable sufferings of human existence”
in sickness, aging and death?
Might answers lie in a religious quest?
So he donned the robes of a monk
and set off on his search.
In his search he discovered the miracle of mindfulness, (1)
the invitation to accept what is happening
without clinging to what is happening,
to face what is going on in or around us with honesty,
to be gentle toward it, not because it is necessarily good, but because it is there.
And then let it go … something we do in Christ.
It is something that holy family I witnessed was doing in spades.
Advent as a season of mindfulness
does not eradicate death,
does not remove the suffering or illness or anxiety that dogs us,
does not remove evil from the world,
but in mindfulness worthy of the Baptist
allows them to be transformed,
after a very long period of letting go,
into peacefulness and one day, maybe even into joy,
because, like John, our mindfulness leads to a life of prophetic action.
And so we listen to the poetess, a contemporary Baptist,
whose mindfulness is worthy of the Buddha
as she muses: (2)
Wage peace with your breath.
Breathe in firemen and rubble,
breath out whole buildings
and flocks of redwing blackbirds.
Breathe in terrorists and breathe out sleeping children
and freshly mown fields.
Breathe in confusion and breathe out maple trees.
Breathe in the fallen
and breathe out lifelong friendships intact.
Wage peace with your listening:
hearing sirens, pray loud.
Remember your tools;
flower seeds, clothes pins, clean rivers.
Play music, learn the word for thank you in three languages.
Learn to knit, and make a hat.
Think of chaos as dancing raspberries,
imagine grief as the outbreath of beauty
or the gesture of fish.
Swim for the other side.
Never has the world seemed so fresh and precious.
Have a cup of tea and rejoice.
Act as if armistice has already arrived.
Don’t wait another minute.
In this holy season,
it is traditional for us to sing certain ancient songs,
but sometimes we so love the tunes we immunize ourselves
against the texts … like that of “O come, O come, Emmanuel”
which sings of captives and lonely exiles,
of the grave and the path to misery,
gloomy clouds of night and death’s dark shadows,
yet it always beckons us to rejoice,
not hapless, not duped, not tranquilized,
but reignited in the Baptist’s fire,
not waiting another minute,
to embrace the broken, to free prisoners,
to mourn the innocent dead, and work for justice,
through Christ our Lord.
(1) Paul Knitter, Without Buddha I Could Not Be a Christian (Oxford: OneWorld, 1999), 152.
(2) Judyth Hill, “Wage Peace.”
© 2012, Edward Foley. Fr. Edward Foley, Capuchin, is the Duns Scotus Professor of Spirituality and ordinary professor of liturgy and music at Catholic Theological Union in Chicago.