Readings for Second Sunday of Advent: IS 11: 1-10; PS 72: 1-2, 7-8, 12-13; ROM 15: 4-9; MT 3: 1-12 http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120813.cfm
Recently articles in OpEdNews (my favorite on-line news source) have been full of revolutionary themes. For instance, Chris Hedges informed us of an invisible revolution simmering and about to erupt. It will be driven, he said, by widespread discontent with wages, wealth disparities, militarism, and climate change denial.
Then in his viral BBC interview, comedian Russell Brand called for revolution stimulated by everyone’s recognition of the futility of politics as we know it. No one should vote, he said; the system is too broken to be improved at the ballot box.
On the other hand, Senator Bernie Sanders’ revolution would be based wider participation in political processes, with everyone voting. That would overcome reactionary moves that disenfranchise voters and empower moneyed interests to determine electoral outcomes against the popular will.
Calling us back to reality, Robert Becker advised that any revolution at all is highly unlikely, since no one on the left offers compelling direction or revolutionary vision.
At the time of its publication, that last remark seemed apt. No world leader capable of mobilizing millions had yet emerged.
However all of that changed two weeks ago. The compelling direction and revolutionary vision whose absence Mr. Becker correctly lamented indeed materialized in an ironically unlikely form – a pronouncement of the Roman Catholic papacy.
On Tuesday November 26th, Pope Francis published his Apostolic Exhortation, Evangelii Gaudium (The Joy of the Gospel). It represents the most articulate and detailed “vision” of a revolutionary future yet offered by anyone actually capable of producing results in the street and at the ballot box.
That is, as a member of the world’s super-elite, and virtually above reproach and easy dismissal by his fellow aristocrats, the pope’s pronouncement demands serious consideration. This is especially true on the parts of the bishops and clergy who weekly have before them captive audiences voluntarily come together to meditate upon, pray about, and attempt to internalize the gospel vision which the pope describes as focused on the poor, peace, social justice and on the structural causes of violence, war and terrorism. Moreover, these themes, the pope insists, should be driven home in homilies at Sunday Mass, since such leitmotifs represent the inescapable essence of the Judeo Christian tradition.
Today’s liturgy of the word provides a case in point. It articulates the revolutionary vision and compelling direction the pope finds throughout the Bible. It’s a utopian vision that courageously connects peace with social justice and environmental consciousness.
Consider the first selection from the prophet Isaiah. It directly links peace and social justice – for the poor and oppressed who in Isaiah’s day and our own are typically ignored. By way of contrast, Isaiah’s concept of justice consists precisely in judging the poor and oppressed fairly and not according to anti-poor prejudice – in Isaiah’s words, not by “appearance or hearsay.” (No room here for “Stop and Frisk,” or “Shop and Frisk!”)
Not only that, but according to the prophet, treating the poor justly is the key to peace between humans and with nature. It produces a utopian wonderland where all of us live in complete harmony with nature and with other human beings. In Isaiah’s poetic reality, lions, lambs, and calves play together. Leopards and goats, cows and bears, little babies and deadly snakes experience no threat from each other. Most surprising of all, even believers (Jews) and non-believers (gentiles) are at peace. (Today’s excerpt from Paul’s Letter to the Romans seconds this point. He tells his correspondents to “welcome one another” – including gentiles – i.e. those the Jewish community normally considered incapable of pleasing God.)
Today’s responsorial psalm reinforces the idea of peace flowing from justice meted out to the “least.” As Psalm 72 was sung, we all responded, “Justice shall flourish in his time, and fullness of peace forever.” And again, the justice in question has the poor as its object. The psalmist praises a God and a government (king) who “rescue the poor and afflicted when they cry out” – who “save the lives of the poor.”
In his own time, the lack of the justice celebrated in today’s first three readings infuriates Jesus’ cousin, John the Baptist. Today’s gospel reading has him excoriating the religious leaders of his day as a “brood of vipers.” Unmistakably clothed as a prophet – in garments that absolutely repudiate fashion and the pretenses of his effete opponents John reminds us of the simple lifestyle adopted by Francis I. John lambasts the Scribal Establishment which had identified with the occupation forces of Rome. As opposition high priest, John promises a religious renewal that will lead to a new Exodus – this time from the power of Rome and its religious collaborators.
As part of today’s revolutionary theme, it’s important to emphasize the Exodus dimensions of Matthew’s description of John. The Baptist is presented as preaching and baptizing specifically outside the temple and sphere of the priests. In fact, John appears in the wilderness – in the desert. For Jews, this would not only have evoked overtones of their great myth of national origin. It would also have signaled a subversive significance in John’s work. After all, the “desert” or “wilderness” was the place where contemporary resistance movements were spawned. (I imagine that if the Romans had the power, they would have “droned” John and his followers in a “signature strike.”)
Do you see what I mean about harnessing the revolutionary power of the Bible’s myth, poetry, utopian visions, and preferential option for the poor? It’s all there in Isaiah, Psalm 72, in Paul’s letter to the Romans, and in Matthew’s portrait of John. And if we look with the eyes of Pope Francis, we can find those themes every Sunday. It’s powerful stuff, I’m sure you agree. And the pope not only sees that himself, he has called 1.2 billion inhabitants of this planet to recognize it along with him and act accordingly.
The action Francis recommends is particular. It consists in combatting a form of capitalism that he describes as systematized murder. He rejects “trickle-down” theory, and demands interference in the out-workings of markets in the name of the common good. The pope calls Catholics and others of good will to recognize access to food, education, and healthcare as human rights.
And the pope does all of this without demanding sophisticated comprehension of history, economic theories, or detailed social analysis.
Instead he relies on the power of myth, poetry, God-talk, and biblical focus on a divine preferential option for the poor and Jesus’ vision of God as universal parent.
All of that is there in today’s liturgy of the word. For any with eyes to see, it’s there every Sunday to assuage our hunger for “vision” and “direction.”
It’s time for progressives to follow the lead of Pope Francis. He’s calling us to set aside our pseudo-sophistication that has intellectuals rejecting the Bible’s power to mobilize huge masses of people. That is, we must reclaim the powerful mythology of the Bible and lay aside our practical disdain for story, myth and symbol. That’s where we’ll find our missing “vision and direction.”
I find that promising, invigorating . . . and somehow ironic.