Sunday, December 10, 2006

Second Sunday of Advent 2006

Texts: Baruch 5:1-9; Psalm 126; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

"ARCHBISHOP Romero offers her a chair. Marianela prefers to talk standing up. She always comes for others, but this time Marianela comes for herself. Marianela Garda Vilas, attorney for the tortured and disappeared of EI Salvador, does not come this time to ask the archbishop's solidarity with one of the victims of D' Aubuisson, Captain Torch, who burns your body with a blowtorch, or of some other military horror specialist. Marianela doesn't come to ask help for anyone else's investigation or denunciation. This time she has something personal to say to him. As mildly as she can, she tells him that the police have kidnapped her, bound, beat, humiliated, stripped her-and that they raped her. She tells it without tears or agitation, with her usual calm, but Archbishop Romero has never before heard in Marianela's voice these vibrations of hatred, echoes of disgust, calls for vengeance. When Marianela finishes, the archbishop, astounded, falls silent too.

"After a long silence, he begins to tell her that the church does not hate or have enemies, that every infamy and every action against God forms part of a divine order, that criminals are also our brothers and must be prayed for, that one must forgive one's persecutors, one must accept pain, one must. . . Suddenly, Archbishop Romero stops.

"He lowers his glance, buries his head in his hands. He shakes his head, denying it all, and says: 'No, I don't want to know.'

" 'I don't want to know,' he says, and his voice cracks.

"Archbishop Romero, who always gives advice and comfort, is weeping like a child
without mother or home. Archbishop Romero, who always gives assurances, the tranquilizing assurance of a neutral God who knows all and embraces all-Archbishop Romero doubts.

"Romero weeps and doubts and Marianela strokes his head."

“Arise, O Jerusalem, stand upon the height; look toward the east, and see your children gathered from west and east at the word of the Holy One, rejoicing that God has remembered them. For they went out from you on foot, led away by their enemies, but God will bring them back to you , carried in glory, as on a royal throne. For God has ordered that every high mountain and the everlasting hills be made low and the valleys filled up, to make level ground, so that Israel may walk safely in the glory of God.”

I read the story of Romero and Marianela every year, in the first weeks of Advent. I read it as a reminder that Advent is not about Christmas; not Christmas as the world knows it. It is not about packages and trees and lights and maybe even snow; it is not about family and eating too much and wonderful foods you don't see the rest of the year and the lovely old carols we all know by heart, even though most of them are hymns and not carols at all. Advent isn't about that. Advent isn't supposed to prepare us for shopping and hot chocolate and the children's service on Christmas Eve. Advent is about what comes before the mountains and the everlasting hills are made low, before the valleys are filled up, before we can walk safely in the glory of god. Advent is about the world God comes into, the world that needs God. Advent is even about the world that rejects God. And probably, the more the world has rejected God, the less the church has dominated society, the more our Advent has become the world’s celebration of buying and selling and giving and receiving, and the less it has been our preparation from the coming of our Lord. Before the Lord could restore the fortunes of Zion, those fortunes had to be lost, and lost completely, wholly, irrevocably.

The good fortune of Archbishop Romero was lost in a sudden blow when the horrors of life for his people in El Salvador was finally brought home to him by the story of Marianela. He would have preferred an Advent like ours: a chance to hide a little longer behind the tranquilizing assurance of a neutral God who knows all and embraces all. He would have preferred to remain comfortable with the familiar, to not hear the voice of a God calling him out to the wilderness, calling him to accompany the people. But what came to him was the world that needed God; what came to him was the world God needed to come into, not the world he wanted to bring God to. Archbishop Romero, like me, like anyone of us, wanted the world to be a safe place for God, which hope might someday make the world a safe place for us. That’s the Advent we want every year: a world made safe for the child to be born into. Instead, we get the Advent of reality: of war and needless deaths and crimes. Reality shattered Romero’s illusions of safety and security. The world always breaks in to our carefully protected traditions, just like the Massacre of the Innocents which follows every Christmas. For Romero it was the cry of the oppressed: “When will you save the people? O God of mercy, when? The people, Lord, the people! Not thrones and crowns, but men!” To have our fortunes restored, we must first admit that we are empty.

"THERE are so many deaths everywhere that it is incredible.

"The "death squadron" strikes in so many poor homes. A family of seven, including three small children, was machine gunned to death in a nearby town just last week. It is a daily thing- death and bodies found everywhere, many decomposing or attacked by animals because no one can touch them until they are seen by a coroner. It is an atmosphere of death.

"The organized, as they call the left, are made up of some of those simple courageous, suffering farmers. In the Pastoral de Asistencia [pastoral Assistance] work that Ita began in Chatelango, one comes in contact with so many poor refugees-women and children especially, who have lost husbands, brothers, fathers.

"It has become an ordinary daily happening. Two lovely young women were cut into pieces by machetes in a community nearby where so many of the people have been killed. The brave mother of one of these young women is also the mother-in-law of the other and she was here with us taking refuge. We are trying to help the refugees-bringing them to shelters and getting food to places where it is desperately needed.
"Archbishop Romero [murdered while he said Mass in San Salvador on March 23] and all the martyrs of this little violent land must be interceding for a new day for Salvador.

"I am beginning to see death in a new way, dearest Katie. For all these precious men, women, children struggling in just laying down their lives as victims, it is surely a passageway to life or, better, a change of life. . . .

"I don't know what tomorrow will bring. I am at peace here and searching-trying to learn what the Lord is asking. Ita is a beautiful, faith-filled young woman. I am learning much from her. At this point, I would hope to be able to go on, God willing. . . . This seems what he is asking of me at this moment. The work is really what Archbishop Romero called "acompanamiento" [accompanying the people], as well as searching for ways to bring help.

"Write to me soon. Know that I love you and pray for you daily. Keep us in your heart and prayers, especially the poor forsaken people."--Maura Clarke

Maura Clarke was a Maryknoll sister working with the poor in EI Salvador when she wrote this letter in October 1980. On December 2 of that year, Maura Clarke, Ita Ford, Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel were brutally murdered.

December 2, 1980. The story of Maura Clarke and Ita Ford, or Jean Donovan and Dorothy Kazel, is a story of Advent, too. Eight days ago now. 26 years ago, now. No wonder we ask every year that Emmanuel come and ransom captive Israel. No power on earth can do it, can save the people; only the power of God can do it. Only the emptying of our hands and our hearts can let God do it. Listen again to Luke: “In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.” He takes us from the center of the known power of the world, the palace if Emperor Tiberius, out to the edge of the empire, and the palace of Pontius Pilate, sitting so close to the Temple of Jerusalem Pilate’s guards can stare over the walls into the Temple courtyard. And then down the chain of power we go: Herod the tetrarch, ruler of a quartered kingdom, shared with his brother Philip, who rules half, and Lysanias, ruler of the last quarter. Jumping from each ruler’s home we come to the high priests, the religious powers of Jerusalem, and from them we jump out of the cities altogether, into the wilderness. None of those powerful people matter. Who matters is John, son of Zechariah, living empty handed in the wilderness, waiting for the voice of God. All the powers the world passed by to find this particular, seemingly insignificant, person in the wilderness of Galilee, who is waiting, empty.

Advent is the church’s season of apocalyptic. The world wants to devote December to buying things, filling our arms so we don’t feel empty. The church prepares us by making us empty ourselves, to make room for God. The world is anxious to open packages. The church is anxious to kneel by the feeding trough with the shepherds. Like the shepherds, we want to be empty, not looking for anything, so we will see God in a baby born to peasants. That’s what Advent prepares us for: to see peasants as the messengers of God. Peasants were so important God wanted to be sure to help them. Peasants were so important God came as one of them. Peasants were so important Herod wanted their children killed. The poor of El Salvador were so important, that someone was willing to murder, repeatedly, to keep them from being helped. Emptiness is not lack or wanting, or even insignificance. Emptiness, too, can be important. And the work of God, the work for us who are not poor, is acompanamiento, is accompanying the people. That is what Advent looks forward to: the time when God accompanied us. The time when God took on the risk of mortality, in order to be with us in our lives, to find ways to bring help, so we would help each other. God took on the risks of life, in order to be with us. God came to us! The fact that God is among us is almost apocalyptic; it almost turns our world upside down. And it should.

Caesar, Pilate, Herod, Anas, Caiphas: their hands are full with the great crushing weight of civil authority, and it all weighs down on the people beneath them. They sit in their palaces and hold audiences: we have to go to them. They do not accompany the people, they rule the people. John, his hands empty, his spirit ready, accompanies the people. He calls them to the wilderness, he calls them in the opposite direction. Because of that, he will be the prophet of the most high, and go before the Lord to prepare his way. Because the Lord is coming, not to palaces and kings and cities and temples, but to those whose hands are empty. To those who wait only to be filled by God.

Advent is not about death, but death is a part of it. Advent is not about birth, but birth is a part of it. Advent is about reversal, because God is coming; because things are not as they should be, and God is coming to set them right. Advent is about paradox, because God has come, and set things right. Advent is about the encounter with God which forces a choice, a giving up of the old ways for the new one God is revealing. Advent is about acompanamiento, and our preparation to accompany the people.. Advent teaches us to empty ourselves, so that our love may grow richer in knowledge and insight of every kind, enabling us to learn by experience what things really matter. Then on the day of Christ we will be flawless and without blame, yielding the full harvest of righteousness. Not reaping, as you might want to think, but yielding, as Paul says. The harvest of a heart overflowing more and more with knowledge and full insight gained from the effort of acompanamiento. That is also the apocalypse, the revelation: that God is with us, that God goes before us and prepares the way. That all things are in God’s hands, and the better life is here for us. We must be ready to be empty, so God will fill us.


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