1st Sunday of Advent: Do You Know What Time It Is?
One of the strongest images I have from my brief intense trip to Jerusalem is of Rabbi Eli, probably the closest thing to an Old Testament prophet I have ever met. This was a guy who had been arrested several times for standing in solidarity with Palestinians, protesting the human rights violations and protecting their land against the Zionists and fanatics. We were standing outside at a high spot in East Jerusalem looking out over the disputed territories, he was pointing out the various iterations of the security wall making its serpentine way through Palestinian land, and showing us a map of a new settlement about to begin construction in total defiance of the UN and the US which would effectively cut Palestine in half thus preventing any possibility of Palestinians ever having a contiguous piece of land to call their state, thus also effectively destroying the so-called two state solution. And, here’s my point, he said, “And so we are asking ourselves: what time is it? Is it a quarter to midnight? Is it five minutes to midnight? With this development I think it’s one minute to midnight. It’s almost too late.” That line seared so deeply in my mind––“one minute to midnight”––that on the way home I wrote a whole song about it, the closest thing to a ‘60s protest song I had ever written, and it included lines from this first reading from the prophet Isaiah, too: “We’ve beaten our plowshares back into swords / and made spears of our pruning hooks. / We’ve turned revelation to a battle of words / and made weapons of our holy books.” “Do you know what time it is?” That’s what a prophet asks, like Rabbi Eli: they don’t predict the future; they predict the present. Prophets tell us what time it is, in our personal lives as well as in our communal lives, and they say, “If you keep on this course, this is what is going to happen.”
Advent is different from Lent in subtle ways. It’s not really so much a penitential season as it is a prophetic season. And we speak of the microcosm and the macrocosm at the same time, the big picture and our individual lives, and everything in between. We start out talking about the end of time and we move backwards, swim upstream to talk about the birth of Jesus, the beginning of the fullness of time. We are asking ourselves individually, “What time is it in my life?” in the same way we are asking ourselves as a church, as a species, as a world, “What time is it? Where are we headed?” They’re all related, those questions, inextricably linked. “How long can I continue to abuse my body before it’s too late to turn it around and I descend into some kind of debilitating health condition?” My Dad never quit smoking until he had his quadruple bypass; my uncle never quit drinking until he died of sclerosis of the liver. “When am I going to heal that relationship with my parents, my old friend, my co-worker? When am I going to do my own inner work before I have let my dysfunctional relationships tear my family or my community or my workplace apart? Well, maybe I’ll do it later: right now I need a nap.” Wake up! Do you know what time it is? Another huge storm ripped through the US over the Thanksgiving holiday, this one was named Boreas after the ancient Greek god of the north wind. While we were eating our lunch on Thanksgiving Day, at least 14 people were killed and another 58 million people were impacted by being stranded or by loss of power. Climate science predicts that extreme weather events of all types are going to increase in their frequency and their severity, and there is overwhelming agreement that our carbon fuel based way of life is a huge contributing factor––we are changing the very course of evolution. And yet, the United Nations summit on climate change last week in Warsaw was considered to be the most ineffectual ever. We, as a human race, are still not willing to have the conversation about how our lifestyles may have to change, from our approach to transportation and architecture to our consumer habits. Do you know what time it is? In this case it may actually be one minute to midnight, not only too late to turn it around, but also too late to stop it.
I know in my own life I have often had a tendency to think, “When I get it all together, then I am going to take care of this, or that, or the other thing.” This is an avoidance of our own mortality and a denial of the fragility of human existence. The day of the Lord may come for us like a thief in the night. Maybe we think, “After I’m fully enlightened, then I’ll start to give my life in service; then I’ll worry about other people; then I’ll start to pay attention to what’s going on around me.” It doesn’t work that way! The same applies to charity, at every level from the individual through the communal and the corporate: we’re not supposed to wait to take care of the poor in our midst until we’re comfortable. Just as there is no way to peace––peace itself is the way, so we’re not compassionate once we are enlightened––compassion is the way to enlightenment. In his book In the Absence of God, Sam Keen has a pretty strong critique of contemporary spirituality. For years he has been a big supporter of all kinds of investigations into alternate especially non-Western forms of spirituality, but he wrote that he has recently grown dissatisfied, partially because the whole movement “has largely been irrelevant to the great social, political and economic problems we face.” It doesn’t do soup kitchens, civil rights’ marches or protests. “Amid all the offering on holistic healing, awareness, opening the heart, oneness, knowing God, and sacred bodywork, there is little or no reference to justice.” So it’s no surprise, he says, that the new spiritual movements haven’t produced a Deitrich Bonhoffer or a Rienhold Neibhur, a Gandhi, a Dorothy Day, a Martin Luther King, Jr. or a Cesar Chavez. Do we really know what time it is?
Pope Francis is getting criticized for being too social in his message, but he is in more continuity with the last four popes, especially Pope Benedict, than most people realize. As John Allen says, both popes addressed contemporary Catholic sociology as much as if not more than doctrine or discipline. Pope Benedict tried over and over again to address the seeming split between the church’s pro-life and peace-and-justice wings, in the same way as Francis is addressing the division between those Catholics who are invested in what Pope John Paul II called the “new evangelization” as opposed to those who are more interested in the so-called “social Gospel”––the poor, immigrants and the environment, our opposition to war, the arms trade, the death penalty and so on ––as if they were two different things! In Caritas in Veritate, for instance, Benedict XVI insisted on the link between what he called “human ecology,” meaning the church’s teaching on pro-life issues, and “natural ecology,” including the environment as well as the economy, and that defending the unborn child and defending the poor are two sides of the same coin. His 2010 message for World Peace Day was entitled “If You Want Peace, Protect the Environment.” Pope Francis is doing the same thing in his new apostolic exhortation, “The Joy of the Gospel.” He says that there is a “social dimension of evangelization” that we are not free to ignore. And “If this dimension is not properly brought out,” he writes, “there is a constant risk of distorting the authentic and integral meaning of the mission of evangelization” because “both Christian preaching and life are meant to have an impact on society.”
This image from the prophet Isaiah is so strong, it gets repeated several times: In the days to come the mountains of the Lord’s house will be raised above the hills. In the contemplative reading of scripture, we find these different layers of meaning. Jerusalem is first of all the historical city in its specific geographic location. But I came away from my time in Israel realizing that we cannot count on the actual city of Jerusalem on Mount Moriah in the Jewish state of Israel to be that for us: the place where ev’ry nation shall coming streaming to walk the way of peace; it’s not going to be the place where they shall beat their swords to plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; it’s not going to be the place where the nations shall not lift the sword against another land, nor train for war again. One other place in the prophet Isaiah where this image occurs is in chapter 9: In the days to come the boots of tramping warriors and the garments rolled in blood shall be burned as fuel for fire. That’s the reading from Isaiah that we’ll read at Midnight Mass on Christmas, which means that we as a church think that that is what the birth of Jesus was meant to inaugurate. That’s the society that the followers of Jesus are supposed to build ought to be: for unto us a child is born to inaugurate a whole new way of being in the world. It hasn’t happened yet because Christ has not yet been fully born in us. There’s a line from the book of Revelation––I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem coming down from heaven adorned like a bride. I found out this little arcane fact, that that image was the most quoted line of scripture in the patristic era in regards to the church. That is what the followers of Jesus are meant to become, to be, not necessarily in a geographic place––the new Jerusalem, the place where, as Isaiah says in chapter 56, anyone from any nation who will call the name of God I will bring them to this mountain, make them joyful when they pray, and my house shall be a house of prayer for everyone who calls, and I shall gather all the lost! As far as I’m concerned that is what we monks are doing here too, even if we never leave the property: we’re building a new Jerusalem, a new way to live on the earth in accord with the dictates of the Gospel. This is also the mandate of every community, especially wherever two or three are gathered in the name of Jesus, and the mandate to every individual human person: that we become Jerusalem, for each other, for the world. Jerusalem happens whenever Jerusalem happens.
Do you know what time it is in your life? Do we know what time it is in our life as a community, as a church? Well, I’ll tell you what time it is: it’s late, but it’s not too late. Even if the Earth were about to melt down, even if civilization were poised on the brink of crumbling, even if we feel it’s too late to do anything about our physical beings or our psycho-emotional growth, Advent tells us, in the tender mercy of God, it’s never too late to prepare the way in the wilderness of our hearts, and then wait in joyful hope to see what miracles ensue because of the Word planted deeply there.
(1 December, 2013)