Readings for 2nd Sunday in Advent: Bar. 5: 1-9; Ps. 126: 1-6; Phil. 1: 4-6, 8-12; Lk. 3: 1-6 http://www.usccb.org/bible/readings/120912.cfm
In my town of Berea, Kentucky, a kind of religious revival is taking place. A spirited group of people across denominational lines meets once a month to experiment with and “Ecumenical Table Fellowship.” It’s a community of Christians without benefit of clerical leadership meeting to reflect on our common biblical tradition in the light of what Vatican II called “the signs of the times.” The group breaks bread liturgically in the spirit of Jesus’ Last Supper and of the early church. Roman Catholics are prominent in the group. They are discouraged by today’s conservative pre-Vatican II “restorationism” that emphasizes the power of the church hierarchy and ordained priesthood at the expense of Vatican II’s emphasis on the priesthood of the faithful.
Some in the group agree with spiritual theologian, Matthew Fox that their church leadership is in schism against the spirit of the Second Vatican Council, which remains the official teaching of the Catholic Church. Pope John Paul II, Benedict XVI, and the conservative bishops they have appointed are the culprits in schism. These clerics are defensive of hierarchy and the power of an exclusively male priesthood. They devalue lay leadership and the prominent biblical stories of Exodus and Return from Exile that are highlighted in today’s liturgy of the word where they are contrasted with “the priestly story” that currently plagues the Catholic Church.
The great Jesus scholar, Marcus Borg, reminds us that amid the literally hundreds of stories in the Bible, there are three “macro-stories” that give coherence to the Jewish Testament and its Christian counterpart. The first and most important is the story of Exodus. Its’ a tale of liberation from slavery and journey to a “Promised Land.” For the ancient Hebrews, the Exodus was grounded in an actual historical event, the release of slaves from their oppression under the pharaohs of Egypt perhaps 1200 years before the birth of Jesus. It was the Exodus that provided the ancient Hebrews with their first experience of their God, Yahweh. For them, Yahweh’s fundamental identity was the One Who Liberates from Oppression. In our day, the macro-story of Exodus has become central for third world people living under the harsh realities of U.S. imperialism.
The second Old Testament macro-story is Exile and Return. It too was grounded in history. In the year 587 BCE, the Hebrews were conquered by Babylon (modern Iraq). The Babylonians transported the Hebrew elite to Iraq till the Persian King Cyrus released them after conquering Babylon in 539.The story of exile and return shaped the ancient Israelites almost as much as the Exodus story. Like oppression and slavery, that narrative represents a human archetype that all of us can relate to it in one way or another. The archetype evokes the feelings of grief, sadness and displacement reflected in one of the psalms of exile, “By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down and wept when we remembered Zion.” The Advent Hymn “O Come Emanuel” expresses the same feelings in its own reference to the Babylonian Exile: “O Come O Come, Emanuel, and ransom captive Israel, that mourns in lonely exile here.” For one reason or another, all of us feel somehow exiled, sad, and displaced.
The third macro-story of the Jewish Testament comes from priestly sources. It is not grounded in a particular historical event, but in temple ritual and worship. It is the story of sin, guilt and of forgiveness mediated by the priestly class, their sacrifices, rules, rituals and prayers. Judging from the attitudes of Israel’s prophets and especially of Jesus, the priestly narrative is far less important than either Exodus or Exile. In fact, along with many other prophets, Jesus expressed harsh criticism and even hostility towards priestly pretensions and business-as-usual within the temple precincts. And yet, the priestly narrative has carried the day in terms of dominant Judeo-Christian spirituality. “Jewish guilt” and “Catholic guilt” are legendary. Jesus is primarily understood as the one who “died for our sins.” God’s wrath and the threat of hell are staples of Sunday sermons and of Christian neuroses.
The focus of today’s liturgy of the word is Exile and Return in sharp contrast to the Priestly Story of sin, guilt, sacrifice and forgiveness. The first reading from the Book of Baruch was probably written about 150 BCE when Israel was under the sway of the Seleucid Greeks. However the book is presented as though it were written 400 years earlier during the Babylonian Exile – as if it were addressed to the exiles then. Baruch’s real audience however was the Jews at war with the Greeks. His real intention was to encourage his contemporaries in their resistance to Greece – promising them that the rough road they were then traveling would soon be made smooth by Yahweh – the one who frees the oppressed and brings exiles back from captivity.
In today’s gospel, Luke presents John the Baptist in terms of both Exile and Return and Exodus. Luke sees John as fulfilling the words of the prophet Isaiah nearly 600 years earlier. By anchoring John’s appearance in Isaiah, Luke is implying that John represents a continuation of Isaiah’s work of announcing the end of exile. This was a bold claim for Luke, since many Jews of his day believed that prophetic voices – nearly always lay people – had forever fallen silent. But here is John presented as fulfilling Isaiah’s words. He is making the rough way smooth. He’s leveling mountains and filling in valleys. At the same time, John’s proclamation as presented by Luke has overtones of the priestly story. Luke shows John proclaiming a baptism of repentance for forgiveness of sin.
But here it is important to note the Exodus dimensions of John’s work. He 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 the Exodus macro-story, 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. As scripture scholar, Ched Myers points out, Luke could not have picked a narrative “coordinate” further removed from the temple. For Luke the regeneration of prophecy was happening not in Baruch’s Zion but at the margins of Jewish society – in the desert where it all began with the Exodus. In other words, Luke presents John’s ministry as a complete break with the priestly establishment which controlled the mechanisms of social redemption from their power base in Jerusalem.
All of this raises questions for thoughtful Christians in the context of our own exilic sadness as we face the contemporary irrelevance of what happens in our own “temples.” Is it time to move out of that realm now dominated by schismatic popes, bishops and priests and to relocate where our worship tradition began – in homes with Eucharists led by lay people?
Perhaps we’re not yet ready to substitute an Ecumenical Table experience for weekly Mass. But we could supplement Sunday Mass with such fellowship once a month. Alternatively, what if an Ecumenical Table were offered each Sunday at the very time of our parish Mass (9:00 am at St. Clare’s in Berea)? That would give parishioners a choice. At least on occasion they could attend the Ecumenical Table and compare it with “business as usual.”
Another idea: Lent is fast approaching (Ash Wednesday is Feb. 13th). Might Lent not be a good time to “give up” church, and for six weeks and experiment with this alternative form of worship?
In today’s excerpt from his letter to Philemon, Paul prays that the church meeting at Philemon’s house might be given discernment to distinguish what is really important. Today’s liturgy of the word suggests that Exodus from business as usual and return from the Exile of pre-Vatican II Restorationism might be more important than honoring the priestly order that has dominated Catholic consciousness for too long.
Let’s consider trying to recapture Philemon’s home church experience and see what happens – if only for Lent’s six weeks. At the very least, the absence of people at Sunday Mass might get the attention of our bishop and pastor. It might help them realize that something’s amiss!