Experiences this week: the "Quema del Diablo" public burning of the "scapegoat" , the Conception of Mary, and Handel's Messiah at Santo Domingo John+ and Terri Smith on the town (Antigua)
The Third Sunday of Advent is known as Jubilate Sunday- Rejoice! In Advent and Lent, both having a penitential aspect to them (although in Advent you can throw in an "Alleluia" or two), there is a Sunday in the season to provide a respite from the regimen of the season. Today is the one for Advent, and, if you have an Advent wreath the pink candle is lit.
The first reading from Zephaniah, known as the "Day of the Lord" prophet, for saw the joy of those returning from exile in Babylon: the Lord was with them, God won the victory over their captors. God providentially arranged for Cyrus, King of Persia, to conquer the Babylonians and free his people and allow them to return home to Jerusalem. Their fortunes would be restored.
A couple of verses that jump out at me:
I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time.
The exile was a difficult period for the Jews, but they got through it remembering God's promise. They didn't do violence to their captors and remained above reproach, instead they waited for God to work out their freedom and restore their fortunes. Sometimes we're tempted to do God's work for him in "sacred violence" and end up making things worse!
St. Paul in the Letter to the Philippians shares the secret of getting through difficult times and circumstances:
Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near. Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus.
I think St. Paul is on to something here.
There is a real power in rejoicing, but we don't really believe it or just "put on a happy face." In the "real" world how can you live Joy in the face of violence and loss? But this is really the case! (Joy is related to the theological virtue of charity: love of God and neighbor makes Joy possible even when sorrows come). One thing for certain: you can't harbor resentment, anger, and plan revenge for wrongs suffered, if you "rejoice in the Lord" and let God's peace "guard your heart and mind."
Some wise person said once: Rejoice at what God is doing in the world and let go of what God is not doing. (We often are blind to what God is doing and focus on all the violence in the world which God has no part in.)
So here comes John the Baptist again this Sunday. One important thing to keep in mind is how different John the Baptist is from his cousin, Jesus. Both wanted to remind the "children of Abraham" not to take for granted their chosen-ness as if it didn't matter how they actually lived day to day. But they went about it in completely different ways. Imagine the words of John on Jesus' lips: You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Like trees that bear no good fruit you will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
This "throw into the fire" idea forms the basis for our imagined notion of hell. The word English word "hell" in the bible is translated from the word "Gehenna," a smoldering dump where agricultural waste was burned continuously. John is saying "Bear fruit or you will be cut down like the trees that bear no fruit and thrown on the heap."
Hell is where the "vipers" of this world, the bad folk, will be sent by God to suffer for eternity. This is what we, as the people in John's time thought: Tell me what to do to not end up there. John puts it like this: If you have some clothing or food share it. Be honest and fair with people. Don't intimidate people from positions of power and don't extort to get more money. This sounds like something Jesus himself would say. But it's hard to reconcile the God of love revealed by Jesus with the this "throw into hell part (with all the "lucky," saved folks cheering!).
So on this "Gaudete" Sunday, how do we find joy when language like "wrath to come" and "hell" are front and center in the Gospel? Let's take "wrath" first. There is only one place, in Romans 1:17 where "wrath" is associated with "God." This is only one of 17 times the word (orge) is used. When John the Baptist says "who warned you to flee from the wrath to come" it means "hostile military action." The Roman armies and their allies were moving and bringing death and destruction. Wrath, never of God, is something God puts up with as a consequence of our human freedom. When wrath is spoken of in the scriptures it is always of human, not divine origin. If we see wrath coming down in the world, as we see everyday, it is only caused by humans, not God.
And now, what is "hell?" I know that most of us have thought of hell as a place, as I said before, "Where the bad folk are sent." But perhaps a better definition of hell would be the cold places that exist in all of our hearts and, sadly, cause our hearts to "ice-over," unable to be a conduit of God's love. When John the Baptist says so humbly:
I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
God's fire is different from the fires of human wrath: God's fire melts the ice and warms the cold places of hearts. This opens us to a life of Joy in the midst of the world's sorrows. Hell then, is to remain in coldness, lacking forgiveness and mercy toward others, refusing them the warmth of God's love. The repentance that John the Baptist called for is true metanoia, meta-nous, change of mind, looking at things differently through the merciful, and not in any sence, wrathful, eyes of God. Doing this, with God's grace, we can truly be joyful lights in a world that will never be conquered by the darkness.
Saint Alban Episcopal Mission (English) meets for mass every Sunday at 10:00 A.M. (see welcome letter at sidebar) at Casa Convento Concepcion, 4a Calle Oriente No. 41, Antigua, Guatemala.
5235-6674 cell telephone (502 country code)
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