Wednesday, December 21, 2016

Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #24: Sneaking Through the Cracks (by Edwin Woodruff Tait)

Ironic Advent 2016 Meditation #24:
Sneaking Through the Cracks

A Homily based on the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent by Edwin Woodruff Tait

**Editor's Note
I asked my favorite preacher (who has no pulpit but often preaches to his daughters amidst the chickens) and a dear friend, Edwin Woodruff Tait, to provide a meditation based on the readings for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, my favorite Sunday of Advent. 

Although I have a deep reverence for John the Baptist, as my readers would know, I think of the Fourth Sunday of Advent as "Mary Sunday," whatever it's officially or unofficially called by others. In the readings from Lectionary A (as this year), it might best be called "Joseph Sunday." 

What Edwin does so wonderfully here, and I've heard him do it before, is pay close and smart attention to all the readings. I suggest that if you, like me, really did not have a homily on Sunday that was up to the level of these readings and this special day, you memorize this one. Or, at the least, chant it aloud. And now, Edwin--
Ben Camino asked me to say something about the readings for this past Sunday, the Fourth Sunday in Advent. Given that I’m doing this for him, I’m sure it’s supposed to be ironic. But if I write something solemn, that will be in ironic contrast with Ben's normal tone. So that’s OK. [Ben Camino notes that is not a snarky tone but attention to the ironic nature of Advent itself which has made the Ironic Advent Meditation what it is, whatever that means]

Fr. Tom (the priest at St. Mark’s Catholic Church in Richmond), said in his homily Saturday evening that in this last week of Advent we should be “open to the unexpected” alongside the normal disciplines of prayer, fasting, and almsgiving. And that is, I think, a pretty good way to sum up the Fourth Sunday.

The Old Testament and Gospel readings go naturally together--even in the Revised Common Lectionary. (The Epistle is the beginning of Romans--basically Paul saying “Jesus is great and I want to tell everybody about Jesus.”) The Gospel tells the story of Joseph getting the message from an angel that he shouldn’t send Mary packing. The Old Testament is Isaiah 7--the prophecy that “a virgin will conceive and bear a son” which Matthew quotes in the Gospel reading and applies to the birth of Jesus.

The context of the prophecy (well explicated by Bruce Nettleton of First United Methodist Church--the other sermon I heard this weekend) is that King Ahaz of Judah is facing invasion by two neighboring kingdoms--the northern kingdom of Israel and the neighboring kingdom of Aram (present-day Syria). Both of these kingdoms are larger and more powerful than Judah. 

Isaiah comes to the king and offers a sign of God’s protection: “Ask a sign of the Lord your God; let it be deep as Sheol or high as heaven.” Ahaz demurs piously: “I will not ask, and I will not put the Lord to the test.” God is not amused: “Hear then, O house of David! Is it too little for you to weary men, that you weary my God also? Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and shall call his name Immanuel. He shall eat curds and honey when he knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good. For before the boy knows how to refuse the evil and choose the good, the land whose two kings you dread will be deserted. The Lord will bring upon you and upon your people and upon your father's house such days as have not come since the day that Ephraim departed from Judah—the king of Assyria!”

In other words: don’t worry, Ahaz. These two bozos threatening you are nothing. The really big bad empire is coming and will eat them for breakfast, and then come after you for lunch.

God promises deliverance. But who will deliver us from the deliverance?

Much later in the book of Isaiah, in the reign of Ahaz’ son Hezekiah, the Assyrians do come after Judah, and God does deliver Judah by sending an angel to smite the Assyrian army. And then, a couple of chapters later, Hezekiah happily makes friends with Babylon, a  rising power that promises to counterbalance the Assyrians. As Isaiah warns him, this is a bad move, because just over a century later these same Babylonians will do what the Assyrians failed to do--destroy Jerusalem and send the people of Judah into exile.

And so it goes--empire after empire, big fish eaten by bigger fish, monsters rising out of the sea and devouring each other as Daniel would put it. . .

And where does the virgin fit in? Who is she? Why is her giving birth important? Nobody, until the coming of Jesus, seems to have thought that the prophecy referred to a miraculous conception. (The Hebrew word “almah” is sometimes, in fact, translated as “young woman”--it’s not even the standard word for “virgin.”) In the original context, the birth of the child appears to be mostly a timer--by the time the child is old enough to know good from evil, the Assyrians will have come down like a wolf on the fold and done their wolfy thing to Israel and Syria.

And yet--why is the child called “God with us?” Is God’s presence shown in this endless parade of murderous empires? Is the best we can hope for that one empire will knock another off our backs and we will somehow manage to survive cowering in the ruins? Is the “unexpected” to which we open ourselves the unexpected rise of a new power? Is Trump our best deliverer from Clinton (or, depending on your politics, the other way round)?

Seven hundred years later, a just man found out that his fiancee was pregnant. Some of the modern translations (NIV, NAB) say that he didn’t want to expose her to shame even though he was righteous. In other words, his observance of the Law made him want to get rid of her, but something else--basic human compassion--made him want to do it without shaming her. 

Raymond Brown endorses this view in his book The Birth of the Messiah. Still, it seems to me that the grammar of the Greek better fits the King James rendering (also adopted by the NRSV, and mentioned as an option by the NIV): “being a just man, and unwilling. . . “ That is to say, Joseph’s righteousness was precisely the thing that made him compassionate even toward someone he thought had committed a great evil. Perhaps it’s both--perhaps Joseph’s “righteousness” pulled him in both directions.

Some commentators point out that Joseph’s “merciful” solution wasn’t all that merciful--a young woman found to be pregnant with no male protector faced a fairly grim future. I’ve recently run into an interpretation put forward by some Catholics to the effect that Joseph knew that a miracle had happened and was too reverent to think that he was worthy to marry the woman who was bearing the Son of God. (The angel, after all, says “don’t be afraid to take Mary as your wife.”) 

I think this is pious nonsense, and it seems to imply that if Joseph had believed Mary to be pregnant via sexual intercourse, he would have handed her over for stoning.

Abandoning Mary quietly rather than openly shaming her and trying to get her stoned for adultery--this choice opens Joseph to the unexpected message of an angel, telling him that God is at work. Instead of playing the dominance game, Joseph acts justly, insofar as he is able to discern justice. And that’s enough to make him an instrument of God’s saving purposes.

In the novel The Apostle by Scholem Asch, Rabbi Gamaliel tells his fanatical disciple Saul, who wants to persecute the Christians, that God uses both good and evil people to accomplish his purposes, but we can choose what kind of instruments we want to be. The Assyrians were God’s instruments, according to Isaiah--the rod of God’s anger. 

But God’s wrath--the just order by which our pride and violence punishes the pride and violence of others, and theirs punishes ours--does not, in itself, bring salvation. God’s mercy--God’s unexpected and unmerited mercy, sneaking through the cracks of our world like the floods of spring--chooses as its instruments those who choose, in however small and imperfect a way, to show mercy.

In order to become God’s agents in working true deliverance--the kind we don’t need to be delivered from--we have to stop thinking primarily in terms of geopolitics and strategy and even utilitarian schemes for making the world better. We must resolve simply to act justly and mercifully. And God will do the rest.

As Ulmo tells Tuor in Tolkien’s Unfinished Tales: “But behold! In the armour of Fate there is ever a rift, and in the walls of Doom a breach, until the fullmaking, which ye call the End. So shall it be while I endure, a secret voice that gainsayeth, and a light where darkness was decreed. . . . The last hope is left, the hope that they have not looked for and have not prepared.”

God gave Ahaz a sign, deep as hell and high as heaven. Deep as the hell wrought by the Assyrian armies, and the Babylonians after them, and the Romans after them. High as the heaven whose mercy we can never earn or anticipate, as the God who is with us, crying in his mother’s arms.

 *painting, "Joseph, I'm Pregnant" by Fr. Jim Hasse, S.J. (for Claver Jesuit Ministry, Cincinnati

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