The Common Good
November-December 2003

If Not Now, When?

by Michaela Bruzzese | November-December 2003

Rabbi Tarfon said, "The day is short. The work is long. We are not enjoined to
complete the task.

Rabbi Tarfon said, "The day is short. The work is long. We are not enjoined to complete the task. Nor are we free to desist from it altogether." And Rabbi Hillel said: "If not now, when?" With their words, two of the greatest teachers in Jewish history help to prepare our journey through Advent. But first, Mark will lead us through the last weeks of the year, which culminate with the celebration of Christ as king. Then the new liturgical year begins as it always does, with God's interruption into human history. Born of Mary, the word of God, Wisdom-Sophia, seeks a place among us once more—not just on Dec. 25, but every minute of every day.

Luke's unique focus on eschatological themes during Advent reminds us that, in the words of the rabbis, preparing for God's impending presence is a daily task. Though we may never see the final result, it is our minute-to-minute alertness that counts, and we must "Be on guard!" and "Be alert at all times!" (Luke 21:34, 36). Judgment day is now, and we must respond now. Each day brings horrifying apocalypses for too many people around the globe, whether in Liberia, Southeast Asia, or Iraq. We all bear our own apocalypses—death, loss, illness, and addictions. How do we bring the good news to those who today suffer judgment after judgment, who plead for mercy, who ache to know the presence of the living God? Advent celebrations are hollow if they are about waiting passively; instead we must "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8). As an Advent people, we always must be preparing for the incarnation, even and especially in the face of death and despair. We stay vigilant because we know that God will come, and that "the peace of God, which surpasses understanding" (Philippians 4:7) is always seeking a place to be born. If not now, when? Michaela Bruzzese is a free-lance writer living in Chile.

November 2

Worship the Living God

Deuteronomy 6:1-9; Psalm 119:1-8; Hebrews 9:11-14; Mark 12:28-34

Our journey toward Advent begins by clearly outlining the basis of our covenant. The foundation of Mosaic law is also, according to Jesus, the foundation of his community, and later of the early Christian community, whom Paul invites "to purify our conscience from dead works to worship the living God" (Hebrews 9:14). Though false gods and idolatry seem a thing of the past, a look at where we spend our resources reveals in what and in whom we place our faith. What do our checking accounts and daily planners reveal? Do we spend our time and money on life-giving things for ourselves and others? Do we worship the living God with living works (health care, education, employment) or do we practice dead works (military spending, elimination of education programs, jails)? These are just a few of the barometers by which our false gods are revealed, and clearly the temptation to idolatry is no less strong now than it was when God invited the Israelites to covenant.

Orthodox Jews, fully understanding the power of idolatry in the world, literally bind God's holy commandment to their bodies twice each day, as the text advises: "Keep these words that I am commanding you today…. Bind them as a sign on your hand, fix them as an emblem on your forehead, and write them on the doorposts of your house and on your gates" (Deuteronomy 6:6-9). What better way for us to prepare for Advent than to begin and end each day by physically attaching these words to our heads and hands as part of our prayers? What better way to state our allegiance to God than to place these words, instead of the American flag, on our doorposts and gates? For today God makes clear that primary loyalty to anything besides God—whether country, community, or even church—is idolatry.

November 9

Yahweh is My God

1 Kings 17:8-16; Psalm 146; Hebrews 9:24-28; Mark 12:38-44

Widows frequently appear in both Old and New Testament readings as a symbol of society's most vulnerable members, who are worthy of special care according to Israeli religious law. In 1 Kings, Elijah, whose name means "Yahweh is my God," is sent by God to a widow's house, ostensibly so that she may feed him. However, the woman is starving and about to prepare the last meal for her and her son, "so that we may eat it and die" (1 Kings 17:12). In an ironic twist, Elijah and "the Lord, the God of Israel" provide food to the woman and her son and restore life, both physically and spiritually. His words, "Do not be afraid," are the same that Jesus will later use, and indeed Elijah's actions and role parallel Jesus' so much that many of Jesus' followers will later believe him to be Elijah reincarnated. Elijah's God is the same God that the psalmist also praises, the one "who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry," who "sets the prisoners free... opens the eyes of the blind... lifts up those who are bowed down... watches over the strangers; he upholds the orphan and the widow" (Psalm 146:7-9).

Later, Jesus also notes the example of a widow and contrasts her with church leaders whose superficial piety does not disguise their quest for power and acclaim at the expense of the poor: "Beware of the scribes, who like to walk around in long robes...and to have...places of honor at the banquets! They devour widow's houses and for the sake of appearances say long prayers" (Mark 12:38-40). In comparison, "this poor widow" gives not of her excess but "out of her poverty" (Mark 12:43-44). As we approach the end of the liturgical year and prepare for the birth of God among us, we are reminded that what we give, of ourselves and our possessions, is of little importance; instead, how we give to others is what will show the world that "Yahweh is my God."

November 16

Throwing Down the Walls

Daniel 12:1-3; Psalm 16; Hebrews 10:11-14, (15-18), 19-25; Mark 13:1-8

The end-of-year readings for the gospel of Mark rely heavily on eschatological themes. Eschatological, or "final judgment," texts were always popular during times of severe persecution and oppression, in both Jewish and Christian circles. They provided hope for those experiencing persecution and reminded believers that suffering and evil, while mysteries, were not meaningless. Rather, the community was encouraged to remain faithful despite adversity, for God too shall remain faithful, and "[t]hose who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky, and those who lead many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever" (Daniel 12:3). It is likely that at the time of the writing of Hebrews, the Christian community was truly expecting Jesus' second coming, and thus the end of the world. Paul reminds them to observe the laws of God as revealed in Christ, now and "all the more as you see the Day approaching" (Hebrews 10:25).

Though these expectations have changed, the texts still serve a valuable purpose. With the close of the liturgical year, next week the church prepares to celebrate Christ as king. Christ's kingdom is the beatitude kingdom, the upside-down kingdom where the last are first, where those who suffer for justice and righteousness will be comforted. It is a place where the community considers "how to provoke one another to love and good deeds" (Hebrews 10:24); where we can "all (emphasis added) enter the sanctuary by the blood of Jesus" (Hebrews 10:19). No longer are women or other "impure" persons excluded from God's presence: In Jesus we are made one and we are all worthy. And Jesus himself emphasizes that it is not just our oppressive social structures that must be destroyed and rebuilt, but any religious ones too. No matter how glorious our church buildings, structures that exclude others "will all be thrown down" (Mark 13:2). Jesus assures us that the coming of the kingdom will truly bring cataclysmic changes, especially to structures of death that oppress and exclude those who seek justice, mercy, and love.

November 23

Everlasting Dominion

Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14; Psalm 93; Revelation 1:4-8; John 18:33-37

Eschatalogical themes again dominate the readings in this, the celebration of Christ the King, which also marks the end of the liturgical year. The book of Daniel contains an end-of-time promise of the coming Messiah, the one whose "dominion is an everlasting dominion that shall not pass away, and his kingship is one that shall never be destroyed" (Daniel 7:14). This vision, which borrows heavily from Ezekiel, seeks to comfort the afflicted and to remind them that death shall never have the last word. The true king shall liberate his people and reign forever.

This theme continues in Revelation, which is heavily influenced by Daniel, Ezekiel, and Zechariah. Thought to have been composed when the early Christian community suffered heavy persecution from the Romans, it encourages the community to remain faithful. It can do so because the very fact of Jesus answers the big questions, the beginning and end: "I am the Alpha and the Omega, says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty" (Revelation 1:8). The middle, no matter how difficult, loses its ability to intimidate when we know both the beginning and the end of the story—God's love for humanity is so great that God chose to walk among us, defeated death, and set free God's resurrecting spirit upon the earth.

Of course, we must remember that kingship, for Jesus, was the reverse of what it is considered today; it consists not of a heirarchy of privilege, but of right relations for all, justice and mercy, and transformative love that brings new life. In fact, earlier in Mark, Jesus fled the crowds because he feared that they would try to make him a traditional king, not a beatitude king. Today we celebrate Christ as the king of justice, of mercy, of love. In this kingdom, we are not called to follow, but to lead. We can and must all be beatitude kings, especially in these bleakest of times. We must maintain our visions, prophesy hope, and remain faithful and committed to the struggle, even and especially when facing so many daily apocalypses and forms of death.

November 30

Be on Guard

Jeremiah 33:14-16; Psalm 25:1-10; 1 Thessalonians 3:9-13; Luke 21:25-36

The first Sunday of Advent opens with a reading from Jeremiah, who promises the Messiah, the one "who will execute justice and righteousness in the land" (Jeremiah 33:15). Christians believe that the "righteous branch" of whom Jeremiah speaks finds its fulfilment in Jesus. Afterwards, Israel itself will be saved and will be called "The Lord is our righteousness" (Jeremiah 33:16). Righteousness plays a big part in these readings and in our preparation for "the coming of our Lord Jesus with all his saints," in the words of Paul (1 Thessalonians 3:13). Waiting for God's birth as Jesus implies preparing ourselves, our behavior and attitudes, to prepare for God. As Paul reminds us, we can measure the righteousness of our behavior by how it manifests itself in our communities: "And may the Lord make you increase and abound in love for one another and for all, just as we abound in love for you" (1 Thessalonians 3:12).

Similarily, leading the gospel narrative this Advent is not a birth narrative or the book of Isaiah, but a reminder that preparation for God's presence among us is a world-altering event; Jesus himself predicts an apocalypse that will preceed the coming of "the Son of God." Because Advent is not often associated with apocalypse, the comparison may be somewhat jarring. If time is understood in a linear fashion, with one beginning and one end, this literature risks two things—either we are impelled to act out of pure fear, or we become apathetic as we resign ourselves to fate. However, if time is understood as cyclical, with its daily beginnings and endings, and if we believe in God's daily incarnation in our lives, Luke's advice is well-placed: "Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with dissipation and drunkenness and the worries of this life, and that day catch you unexpectedly, like a trap" (Luke 21:34). Now would be a good time to review our addictions—to drink, food, comfort, fear, self righteousness, work—anything that "weighs us down" and diminishes our ability to prepare for the reign of God being revealed in our midst.

December 7

Straightening the Paths

Malachi 3:1-4; Luke 1:68-79; Philippians 1:3-11; Luke 3:1-6

The second Sunday of Advent highlights John the Baptist, who prepared the way for Jesus. But first, readings from the Old Testament show us how to prepare ourselves. In our alternative reading, Baruch invites us to dress for the joy of the fulfillment of God's promise: "Take off the garment of your sorrow and affliction, O Jerusalem, and put on forever the beauty of the glory from God" (Baruch 5:1-2). Malachi criticizes the abuses already taking place in the community after exile, and promises the coming of one who will make them accountable: "...he is like a refiner's fire and like fullers' soap...and he will purify the descendants of Levi...until they present offerings to the Lord in righteousness" (Malachi 3:2-3).

In Luke's gospel, John's father, Zechariah, is also prepared. His canticle, like Mary's, is only loosely connected to the rest of the text, leading to speculation that it was originally a Jewish Christian hymn. Whatever its origin, the words themselves remain relevant. Like Malachi, he predicts that John will help prepare the way for Jesus: "You will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins" (Luke 1:76-77). Unlike Malachi, his final words promise salvation by a loving God. "By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace" (Luke 1:78-79).

Finally, we are introduced to the fire-and-brimstone ministry of the Baptist, who "went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins" (Luke 3:1-3). To fully distinguish between their ministries and missions, Luke keeps John's activities completely separate from those of Jesus; Jesus will not actually begin his formal ministry until John is in jail. In this way he emphasizes the importance of preparation for the Messiah, reminding us all to straighten the paths of our lives so that they lead to no one else but God.

December 14

Rejoice!

Zephaniah 3:14-20; Isaiah 12:2-6; Philippians 4:4-7: Luke 3:7-18

If the first two weeks of Advent focused on righteousness, the third is all about joy. Zephaniah, who promises the mercy of a loving God despite Israel's infidelity, prepares the community for celebration: "Rejoice and exult with all your heart, O daughter Jerusalem! The Lord has taken away the judgments against you.... He will rejoice over you with gladness, he will renew you in his love..." (Zephaniah 3:14,17). Isaiah too praises God's fidelity to Israel and alerts them to God's presence: "Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel!" (Isaiah 12:6). Even in his letter to the Philippians, also known as "the letter of joy," Paul's preoccupations with God's coming judgment are replaced by the promise of mercy and peace: "Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.... Do not worry about anything.... And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus" (Philippians 4:4, 6-7). As an Advent people we too can rejoice, despite the fact that we don't fully understand the hows or whys of God's boundless love.

In contrast to the joyful and peaceful tone of the first readings comes a voice from the wilderness: "You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?" (Luke 3:7). John doesn't mince words when it comes to God's impending incarnation. As the only author to connect John's activities to a calling from God, Luke places him squarely in line with the great Old Testament prophets, echoing the prophets' call to repentance. John warns his followers (and us) that ancestry, religious affiliation, and connections of any kind are of no importance; all that matters is that we "bear fruits worthy of repentance" (Luke 3:8). Such fruits, as usual, have to do with justice: Share what you have, do not take advantage of power or authority, do not be greedy. These fruits are but a few ways we can show which god we worship, and that we are truly prepared to incarnate the peace that surpasses all understanding.

December 21

Blessed Are They Who Believe

Micah 5:2-5; Psalm 80:1-7; Hebrews 10:5-10; Luke 1:39-45 (46-55)

In this, the final week of waiting before the celebration of God's incarnation, we witness God's birth from the perspective of women, whose partnership with God made possible God's journey among us. First, Micah prophesies the birth of God's spirit, Wisdom-Sophia, "whose origin is from of old, ancient days" (Micah 5:2). From little, unimportant Bethlehem God shall be born to "she who is in labor" (Micah 5:3). In Mary's canticle, Luke records a text that, like Zechariah's, has little to do with the surrounding text. It too may have been an early hymn of the nascent Jewish-Christian community. Clearly, Luke wanted to convey two things: Mary's joy upon receiving God's shocking news—"my soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my savior" (Luke 1:46-47), and her understanding that God's incarnation had particular implications for the oppressed: "He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty" (Luke 1:52-53).

Curiously, there is no record of any discussion between Mary and Joseph about what is to happen. The only conversation recorded is that between Mary and Elizabeth, Mary's cousin and the mother of John the Baptist. Mary, probably a young teenager, sought the support of her cousin, who responded not with fear, shock, or suspicion, but joy: "Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb. And why has this happened to me, that the mother of my Lord comes to me?" (Luke 1:42-43). What she is most surprised by and grateful for, however, is Mary's deep faith: "And blessed is she who believed that there would be fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord" (Luke 1:45). Indeed, blessed is she or he who believes, despite all evidence to the contrary, that God seeks us out, asking to be born in our lives and world. Blessed are we when we dare to believe that God chooses each of us in unique and different ways to bear God's healing spirit to the world.

December 28

Living With Jesus

1 Samuel 2:18-20, 26; Psalm 148; Colossians 3:12-17; Luke 2:41-52

The site of the temple opens and closes these final readings, just as Luke opens and closes Jesus' infancy narrative in the setting of the Jerusalem temple. First, we see the young Samuel, who has been given to serve the Lord by his mother, Hannah. Earlier in the chapter, Hannah recites a canticle not unlike Mary's as she praises God for Samuel and offers him to God. Samuel is portrayed as an excellent servant who "was ministering before the Lord, a boy wearing a linen ephod" (1 Samuel 2:18).

Luke portrays Jesus in a very similar fashion, an obedient Jewish boy who finds safety and comfort in the temple, instead of with his parents. Here, after being missing for three days, Jesus responds to his frantic parents somewhat nonchalantly, "Why were you searching for me? Did you not know that I must be in my Father's house?" (Luke 2:49). Here Luke makes Jesus' allegiances clear. Jesus belongs to God, not to blood relatives. It is an idea he will reinforce throughout Jesus' life, first by implying that Jesus finds his true family among those who hear and do God's will (Luke 8:21, 11:27), and then by asserting that following Jesus will divide traditional families and create new ones based on belief instead of blood (Luke 12:53).

Now that Christmas is over, and just when we are tempted to set our spiritual lives on cruise control until Easter, Paul insists that we prepare to actually live with, not just wait for, Jesus. He spells out just how: "...[C]lothe yourselves with compassion, kindness, humility, meekness, and patience.... Bear with one another and, if anyone has a complaint against another, forgive each other.... And let the peace of Christ rule in your hearts, to which indeed you were called in the one body. And be thankful" (Colossians 3:12-13, 15). The last three words alone are enough homework to last us until Easter and beyond. If we can achieve just half of Paul's advice, we can help build the peace of Christ to rule not just our hearts, but the world.

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