Thursday, 19 December 2013

Our Lady of the Barricades: The Virgin Mary’s Advent Revolution (and who wants to stop it…)

The season of Advent is a time of preparation and expectation. Something is going to happen. And as a result of that happening, change is coming. It will not be a small change but a complete change- a transformation of what was into what is to be. All things will be made new; systems will be inverted; powers will be overturned.

A revolution is coming. The season of Advent is often a study in this transformational revolution.

And in a real sense, it is a time to choose sides.

It is for that reason that Jesus declared that his coming would not bring peace- certainly not the ‘peace’ of a complacent status quo- but a sword (Matt. 10:34-35). The Gospel of the kingdom spoken of by the ancient prophets and revealed by Jesus was- and is- the great divider. God reveals himself in Jesus as a God of life and liberation, justice and salvation. But of course, if there is a God of life and liberation, there are also idolatrous systems of death and injustice. And Jesus made plain that you couldn’t serve both (Matt. 6:23-25); you had to choose.

In the Gospel of Luke, Jesus made clear the parametres of that choice:

Blessed are you that hunger now; you shall be filled. Blessed are you that weep now, for you shall laugh. Blessed are you when men hate you, and when they abandon you and shall reproach you, and cast out your name as evil, for my sake. Rejoice in that day, and be joyful, for your reward is great in God’s Kingdom; in like manner did their fathers treat the prophets (Luke 6:21-23).

But there was a flipside to that coin:

But woe to you that are rich! What you have now is all you’ll ever have. Woe unto you that are full! You will be hungry. Woe unto you that laugh now! You shall mourn and weep. Woe unto you, when all men shall speak well of you! for so did their fathers to the false prophets (Luke 6:24-25).

What we see is that what the message of the Gospel of Jesus is for you depends very much on where you’re standing. It is indeed ‘good news’ if you are poor, hungry, marginalised and slandered; it’s very bad news if you are making people poor, taking food from the hungry, part of a privileged minority, or spreading hate and disinformation. For some, the words of the Gospel are good news; for others, they are a threat and a warning.

All of this is very prescient for Advent, as it is the season of preparation for the incarnation of Christ. It is a time to remember the time before Jesus and those who understood themselves to be preparing the way for his coming. I’d like to focus on two:

We begin with John the Baptizer, who preached a message of repentance. What was this repentance? ‘
If you have extra clothes, you should share with those who have none; if you have extra food, you should do the same’; to tax collectors: ‘collect no more than you are required to’; to soldiers, he demanded ‘no blackmail, no bullying. Make do with your pay’ (Luke 3:10-14)

It has become easy for certain parts of the Church to focus on repentance as a personal thing, a repentance of individual piety. And while there is often a need for personal repentance, in the biblical text we see John stressing the social aspects of repentance. At its heart, John’s message was one of justice and equity.

But Advent’s most powerful revolutionary manifesto remains that of Mary, the Mother of Jesus. Luke’s Gospel records the meeting of the ‘mothers of the revolution’- Mary and Elizabeth. It was here that Mary, filled with the spirit of God, proclaims the coming transformation: God had honoured her so much that every generation to come would call her- a young, Palestinian Jewish woman-  ‘blessed’; God had ‘scattered the proud… brought the powerful down from their thrones and raised the lowly… filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty-handed’ (Luke 1:48-53).

It is impossible to overstate the radical nature of Mary’s words; there is no other description for them other than ‘revolutionary’. The incarnation of Christ was, in every sense- socially, theologically, spiritually- understood by the earliest Christians as a revolutionary transformation. And ever since, the ‘Song of Mary’, the Magnificat, has been the comfort and the hope of the poorest, the most oppressed, the most marginalised.

It has also been a threat to every repressive, unjust system ever since. The ‘Song of Mary’ was expunged from the Christian liturgies of the churches of British-controlled India; it was banned in the 1930s by Spanish dictator Francisco Franco; in the 1970s it was banned by the Argentinian military junta when it was adopted by the ‘Mothers of the Disappeared’ for use in their demands for justice and nonviolent resistance to the regime; in the 1980s it was banned from public use by the Guatemalan dictatorship; in Nicaragua, during the years of the Somoza dictatorship, poor campesinos mockingly referred to the documents they were required to carry proving they’d voted for Somoza as ‘the Magnificat’.

These brutal, unjust regimes were under no illusions about the potential of Mary’s words- who they were spoken to, who heard the message , who took comfort from them, and who was threatened by them. And they had every right to feel threatened; German theologian Dietrich Bonhoeffer, murdered by the Nazis, wrote:

The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might say the most revolutionary advent hymn ever sung. This is not the gentle, tender, dreamy Mary whom we sometimes see in paintings… This song has none of the sweet, nostalgic, or even playful tones of some of our Christmas carols. It is instead a hard, strong, inexorable song about collapsing thrones and humbled lords of this world...

We must never presume to be on the side of God and his justice as proclaimed by Mary and Jesus. We must never presume that those who govern us are not equally threatened by the Kingdom of God or immune from its denunciations. GT Hunt, one the lawyers for the prisoners held at Guantánamo Bay, has related his account of receiving a request for a copy of the Bible from one of the prisoners, Saifullah Paracha. Hunt dutifully sent a copy to the chaplain at the prison, with a note explaining Paracha’s request. The next time Hunt visited the prison camp, he received a stern rebuke from the prison command: the Bible represented a potentially dangerous breach of prison discipline.

And who can blame the powers that control Guantánamo? Why on Earth would they risk men being held without charge, condemned without recourse to any semblance of justice, obtaining the respite of the words of Mary or the solidarity of her son? Why allow them to fraternise with a woman who so bluntly proclaimed God’s judgement of the powerful? Why risk them meeting a man whose entire life proclaimed release to the captives, justice for the marginalised, and went as far as to identify specifically as one of them- ‘I was in prison...’? (Matt. 25:36)

What does Advent mean for us? If we ask John the Baptizer, ‘what must we do?’, do we dare receive an answer?

Where do we stand with Mary’s manifesto? Will we stand with those who shout it from the rooftops, or will we align ourselves with those who dare not have it even whispered?

The message of Advent is that the incarnation is coming. The revolution is coming.

It’s time to choose sides...

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