(Sunday Homily) Towards a Counter-Cultural Christmas: Becoming Nobody

Santa garbage

Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121414.cfm

As I mentioned in my previous blog, I had an important spiritual experience last Sunday. It was the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker’s Mark distillery – far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel’s commitment to the poor?

At Fr. Louis’ Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled “Louie’s” spirit by reading Brother Paul’s own poetic reflection on Matthew’s words, “Blessed are the poor in spirit.”

Paul’s thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning’s liturgy of the word on this third Sunday of Advent. After all, in today’s readings, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus’ own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus’ gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth.  I wonder if I and my family are strong enough to entertain them.

For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson’s words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew’s (and presumably Jesus’) understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson’s words,

“I am nobody.

Who are you?

Are you nobody too?

. . . How dreary to be somebody.”

Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today’s Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson’s sense. I’m a nobody – merely a voice out of nowhere. I am “a voice crying out in the wilderness.”  Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.

So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies – everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus’ Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew’s spiritual poverty.

And the specific message of the One to come?  (And here’s where material poverty enters the picture.)  Jesus announces the Divine Spirit’s preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today’s first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus’ preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:

The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.” (LK 4: 16-22)

Here Jesus’ focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.

As for the Holy Spirit’s rejection of the rich, that is clearly stated in the revolutionary poem attributed to Jesus’ mother and read today as our responsorial hymn. Mary describes her understanding of God with the following words:

“The Mighty One . . . has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. 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.”

These are truly revolutionary words about dissolving the ideological mind-sets that unify the rich (“the thoughts of their hearts”), about overthrowing the powers that be (removing them from their thrones), about ending hunger, and rejecting wealth on principle.

The class consciousness reflected in this categorical rejection the rich as such reminds us that in the eyes of Jesus’ mother and (the record shows) of her son, there is something intrinsically wrong with any wealth that differentiates rich from poor. This implies that for Mary and Jesus, poverty is not the opposite of wealth.  Rather, the opposite of wealth is God’s justice – a new order possible in this here and now, in this “year of the Lord’s favor,” as Jesus puts it. There, the rich will be necessarily unseated and the poor will have their fill.

If all of this is true – if God’s salvation means eliminating differences between rich and poor – what are we to do in this world of income gaps, torture, racism and militarized police?  The question is particularly apt at this Christmas season. And Thomas Merton’s monastic spirit along with the testimony of his ascetic counterpart, John the Baptizer, implies answers.  It suggests that at the Christmas season we might do well to:

  • Generally withdraw our allegiance from the cultures of New York and Los Angeles and in spirit draw closer to Paint Lick, Gravel Switch – and Merton’s Gethsemane.
  • Consciously simplify our Christmas celebration this year.
  • On the feast commemorating the birth of a homeless child whose mother saw so clearly the opposition between wealth and justice, imitate John’s simple vestment (and that of the Trappists) by giving our gifts of clothes not to the already well-attired, but to the poor.
  • Imagine what would happen if we took those gifts so carefully wrapped and placed beneath our tree and simply gave them away unopened and at random to poor people and their children as we meet them on the street.
  • In the spirit of John the Baptizer, located far from Jerusalem’s temple, boycott church this Christmas, especially if your community (after distributing its de rigueur Christmas baskets) ignores Mary’s summons to social revolution in favor of “Christmas as usual.”
  • Instead make up our own liturgy (around the Christmas tree) to replace the normal orgy of material gift-exchange. (More about this in a later posting.)
  • Boycott entirely this year’s “white Christmas” and (in the light of Mike Brown, Eric Brown and Tamir Rice) celebrate Kwanzaa instead – telling our children why this year is different.
  • Make a Christmas resolution to at last get serious about changing our lives in 2015 by beginning (or intensifying) the regular practice of prayer (or meditation) in the spirit of John the Baptist, Jesus, his mother and Thomas Merton.
  • Realize that inevitably the cultivation of spiritual emptiness (“nobodiness”) resulting from such regular spiritual practice will lead us to serve others in a way that will address the seemingly intractable problems of poverty (both spiritual and material), hunger, captivity and oppression.

I’m not suggesting that any of this would be easy. Going counter-cultural, especially around an event like Christmas, involves a certain self-emptying. It involves detaching from cultural expectations (not to mention those of our children and other family members). In some sense, it means becoming nobody in front of those who expect us to do what everyone else is doing. In other words, going counter-cultural at Christmas conflicts with what Sister Emily calls our dreary attempts to be somebody.

In fact, the cultural pressures are so strong, that it might be impossible for most of us to withdraw cold-turkey from Christmas as we’ve known it. Still, if we desire to be change agents like John the Baptist, Isaiah, Mary, Jesus and Thomas Merton, we’ve got to start somewhere.

Do you have other ideas about where or how to start? If so, please share them. And what about that alternative Christmas celebration involving the whole family on Christmas morning? Can you help with any suggestions there?

(Sunday Homily) Black Lives, Muslim Lives Matter: Obama’s as Guilty as Wilson & Pantaleo

awlaki-killing-of-american

Readings for Second Sunday of Advent: IS 40:1-5, 9-11; PS 85: 9-14; 2 PT 3: 8-14; MK 1: 1-8. http://usccb.org/bible/readings/120714.cfm

Michael Brown, Eric Garner, and 12-year-old Tamir Rice. . . .

The very mention of those names calls to mind the protests that have filled our nation’s streets over the past week – in Ferguson Missouri, New York, Chicago, Los Angeles and places in between. The teenager, the father of six, and the sixth grade child represent deeply racist and unjust social structures where criminals and thugs masquerading as law enforcement officers have implicitly been granted a license to kill with impunity.

The nation-wide demonstrations on behalf of black and brown victims of the resulting “American” police state remind us that our country is decidedly on the wrong track. Like John the Baptist in today’s gospel excerpt, statements by New York’s Mayor de Blasio, Eric Holder, President Obama, and the U.N. special rapporteur on torture call us all to what the Greeks called metanoia – a drastic change of direction.

Ironically however that call to repentance is especially addressed to Messrs. Holder and Obama themselves. They, after all, find themselves in charge of a national and world-wide police state of which Mike Brown’s Ferguson and Eric Garner’s Staten Island represent merely the tip of an iceberg. The call to repentance invites all of us to apply pressure for profound systemic reform that far surpasses anything those “leaders” have in mind.

Today’s liturgical readings inspire such thoughts. Listen to the prophet Isaiah as he cries out for repentance and a restructuring of reality so intense that he imagines mountains being levelled and valleys filled. The point is to smooth the way for the advent of a profoundly non-violent God in our midst. The peace-filled change Isaiah envisions is not trivial.

Listen to Jesus’ mentor, John the Baptizer, as he echoes Isaiah word-for-word. (Needless to say, neither Isaiah’s nor John’s words have anything to do with the artificially excited anticipation of our culture’s Winter Festival and its orgy of selling, buying, and conspicuous consumption – even though “Christmas” deceptively continues to somehow associate itself with the homeless child from Nazareth.)

As a matter of fact, the cult of materialism and “Christmas cheer” couldn’t be more antithetical to sincere recollection of the birth of Jesus who had more in common with Mike Brown and Eric Garner than with the white middle-class culture Christmas celebrates.

More specifically, Jesus was the embodiment of nearly everything “good Christians” (presumably) like Officers Wilson and Pantaleo (the executioners of Brown and Garner) give evidence of despising.  After all, the working man from Nazareth was not only the poor son of an unwed teenage mother. He was an immigrant whose family took refuge in Egypt, the penniless friend of prostitutes and drunkards, and the prophet drummed out of his faith community as villain possessed by demons. He was the victim of torture and capital punishment who was treated as a terrorist by the reigning imperial power.

To the authorities of their day, both the Baptizer and Jesus even looked like Eric Garner and Michael Brown. Both were dark-skinned, either black or brown; they were not white men. Today’s gospel emphasizes how poorly John was dressed.

To repeat: during his life Jesus was impoverished, homeless, unemployed, accused of being subversive, placed on death row, and ultimately executed. As a Jew, he was considered as “other” and worthless to Roman authorities as Mike Brown was to Darren Wilson or Eric Garner to Daniel Pantaleo. He was as worthless as Abdulrahman Al-awlaki (pictured above) was to Barack Obama.

And that brings me to today’s real call to repentance.

It can’t merely be:

  • A superficial call to “trust” – an echo of Rodney King’s “Can’t we all get along?”
  • A reform of police culture
  • A de-militarization of police arsenals
  • A mandating of special independent prosecutors to handle incidents like those in Ferguson and Staten Island
  • Or even prosecution and conviction of police thugs like Wilson and Pantaleo

Instead, our nation has to address the root of the problem which is a world-wide policy of extra-judicial killings of racially-profiled Muslims and dark-skinned poor people. (That’s what a “signature strike” means as executed by drone “pilots.”)

Put otherwise, President Obama, Eric Holder and their minions are as guilty as Wilson and Pantaleo. All of them place themselves above the law. They kill with impunity those “others” they consider expendable. They answer to no one. They refuse to investigate much less prosecute such crimes.

John the Baptizer’s call to repentance summons us to publicize such guilt and completely withdraw support from the policies of the thug leaders of the world-wide U.S. police state.

That, I think, is what metanoia and repentance mean for “Americans” this particular advent.