Ars Praedicandi: Ed Foley on the Second Sunday of Advent

Second Sunday of Advent, Cycle C
by Edward Foley, Capuchin

As my alderman knows
gospel texts about road repair
smoothing out the rough ways
filling in the ruts and potholes and fissures
could trigger anxiety and anger in my neighborhood
whose streets have been in chaos for almost 6 months
with excavations for new water pipes
and now the endless preparation for repaving
with the incessant towing of cars of those of us
who have to park on the street

Over the past few weeks
this chaos included the unwelcome appearance
of compact caterpillar bulldozers
With jack hammers rigged to their front
they look like something fresh from the mind
of George Lucas or one of his Star Wars collaborators
as they careen around the neighborhood
devastating curbs and driveways
at an excruciating decibel level

Road construction is violent
loud, chaotic and expensive
Today’s word
this advent season
announces an even more chaotic construction project
one of global, even cosmic proportions
According to the prophet Baruch
it involves mountain moving
canyon filling
and forest transplanting
And what is the goal of this cosmic construction project?
Not a new silk road to generate political influence
Not some congressional infrastructure bill

to placate voters
and line the pockets of cronies
Not even a good will gesture
to keep Hyde Park residents happy
or disgruntled clergy from badmouthing
his local alderman in the pulpit
Nope: the goal of this divine fabrication program
is the creation of a holy thoroughfare
a sacred turnpike
for the very inbreaking of God’s reign
in our contentious and often unwelcoming world

And of what does that inbreaking consist?
What is the inner core of this sacred intrusion:
in a word; one that Baruch tricefold invokes: Justice

The justice demands of this sacred assault
are both ancient and contemporary
timeless and timely
for Baruch speaks to a time
when countrymen had been deported
his own nation was in ruin
and the shining city of Jerusalem in chains
It is a theme echoed in the Psalm
Restoring freedom to the diaspora
and returning the land to them
Paul in that second reading understands something of that
for his Philippian pep talk
is issued from a jail cell
praying that Philippians be filled with fruit of righteousness
dikaiosune in Greek
better defined as, guess what: “Justice”

In our own day the cries for justice echo
from every corner of the globe
from barricades in Paris to razor wire in Tijuana
from the prison cells of gulags to those of US penitentiaries
from the streets of Kabul to those of Chicago

And who is the apostle of this justice campaign?
Who is leading the charge for God’s inbreaking?
None other than that evangelical wrecking ball: John the Baptist
John is, without question,
one of the edgiest character in the whole of Biblical literature
His outdoor attire is legendary
his revolting dietary habits well known
yet for all of these significant peculiarities
I imagine him as the gospel equivalent
of the Muppet character “Animal”
John holds center court
every second and third Sunday
of every Advent
in every lectionary cycle
I know that is surprising
for he never shows up on lawn decorations
or is seen lurking in the shadow of nativity sets
which is good
because he’d spook the carolers
and frighten the children
and I would wager my scholarly reputation
that none of you have or will receive
a Baptist card as a seasonal greeting
So why is John the herald of the justice road
the poster boy for Advent
and the vanguard for God’s promised reign?
Many reasons, to be sure
but at the top of my list
is that, as hard as it may be to believe
he was not just cousin
but also mentor, even rabbi
to the embodiment of God’s reign and Justice: Jesus

We are used to hearing stories
about Jesus having disciples
but don’t often imagine
that the only begotten himself was a disciple

But you have to ask where he learned it all
this speaking in parables
speaking truth to power
speaking unorthodox love to outsides and the marginalized
Sure he learned some from his parents and other teachers
but cousin John was key here:
this prophet who lived a self-imposed exile from family
the dessert dweller who communed with God’s spirit
the inspired discerner
who before any others
recognized the approaching Lamb of God
a holy vessel of notable humility
who was happy to cede center stage
to his younger cousin
the political thorn in the side
whose wilderness training
built up the necessary endurance
for his reconciling ministry
that ultimately cost him his life …
John was a pivotal mentor to the yet secret messiah
and even in his death
prepared the way for his cousin
who would also be executed by the state.

I have a relative who lives very far north in Canada
about a 14 hour drive north of Vancouver
It is bear country
A few summers ago we went up to visit him and his family
One of our excursions was a picnic
at a magnificent, secluded lake
but before heading out to the lake
we stopped at the Canadian equivalent of Farm and Fleet
to buy bear mace.
This is a serious weapon
a canister that holds about 15 seconds
Of a powerful vapor proven to dissuade an approaching bear

Because it is a real weapon
it requires registration
and a quick background check
While we were waiting for the ok to purchase
the store clerk told us a story from the previous summer
about some tourists from Asia
who had rented a helicopter
and were going to a remote hilltop
for some sightseeing, lunch and picture taking
They were prepared, with hiking boots and cameras
and had made sure they were each covered
with a thick layer of insect repellent
they had also purchased some bear mace
and as a final preparation before landing
decided to apply it to each other’s skin
expelling a poisonous vapor in the cab of the helicopter
as the pilot struggled to bring the craft down
in a hard but safe landing
The Baptist is not imagined in the texts as a bear
but more as a lion roaring out of the dessert
yet there have been multiple attempts over the centuries
to deploy various forms, not of bear mace
but Baptist mace
filling the air with toxic rhetoric
fumes of racism
deadly clouds of sexism
the haze of imperialism
the fog of abuse
to stop his kingdom advance work
The good news, the gospel in the midst of such pernicious vapor
is that these forms of Baptist mace
have not stopped or silenced this lion of God
who season after season
and century after centuries
roars out his challenge to the unconverted
the unconvinced
the unmotivated
to repent and get back to divine road construction
opening new avenues
for the inbreaking of God’s reign.

Sometimes, I admit
I get a little discouraged about the sacred construction task
not only because of distant terrorist attacks
or the xenophobic outburst
by apparently well insulated world leaders
or billion dollar proposals
to wall in the land of the free
and the home of the brave

but also closer to home
by the almost impenetrable clericalism
that plagues our church
the pervasive racism
that plagues our city
and even the absence of respect
that looms in our workplaces
and even in our families
In such moments, when not only the earth
but my soul darkens too easily
I turn to the hope of the prophets like John
and contemporary ones such as the Jesuit Daniel Berrigan

In his 2004 Testimony: The Word Made Flesh
The holy man penned this “Advent Credo”: [1]

  •  It is not true that creation and the human family are doomed to destruction and loss …
    This is true: God so loved the world that He gave his only begotten, that whoever believes in Him shall not
    perish but have everlasting life;
  • It is not true that we must accept inhumanity and discrimination, hunger and poverty, death and destruction

    This is true: I have come that they may have life, and that abundantly;
  • It is not true that violence and hatred should have the last word …
    This is true: Unto us a child is born, unto us a Son is given, and the government shall be upon his shoulder;
  • It is not true that we are simply victims of the powers of evil who seek to rule the world …
    This is true: To me is given authority in heaven and on earth, and lo I am with you, even until the end of the
    world;
  • It is not true that we have to wait for those who are specially gifted, who are the prophets of the Church
    before we can be peacemakers …
    This is true: I will pour out my spirit on all flesh and your sons and daughters shall prophesy, your young men
    shall see visions and your old men shall have dreams;
  • It is not true that our hopes for liberation of humankind, of justice, of human dignity of peace are not meant
    for this earth…
    This is true: The hour comes, and it is now, that the true worshipers shall worship God in spirit and in truth.

Berrigan concludes:

“So let us enter Advent in hope, even hope against hope. Let us see visions of love and peace and justice. Let us
affirm with humility, with joy, with faith, with courage: Jesus Christ — the life of the world.”

Advent is again upon us … but is ever upon us
for the whole of Christian history is advent
the anticipatory moment between Christ’s coming in history
and his final coming in glory
Buoyed by the courage of the Baptist
let us herald
take up again
embrace even more fervently
the very in-breaking of God’s just reign
in our own time, in our own lives
across every border
in the face of every prejudice
through Christ our Lord.


Endnotes
[1] Daniel Berrigan, Testimony: The Word Made Flesh (Maryknoll NY: Orbis, 2004); much of the poem was from a speech by the South African theologian Allan Boesak, delivered in Vancouver and document by Susan A. Blain, Imaging the Word: An Arts and Lectionary Resource, Volume 2 (Cleveland OH: United Church, 1995).

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