by Rev. Claude Mostowik
Pax Christi Australia
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11 | Psalm 85:9-14 | 2 Peter 3:8-14 | Mark 1:1-18
We are all invited to proclaim a message of hope to our world. In a world of war and terrorism, of poverty and injustice, of dishonesty and manipulation of the truth, and of political expediency, and the effects of climate change, we are invited to be like a ‘flea’ or a ‘mosquito’ and practice our faith in the spirit of the great prophets and address issues of justice, peace, and genuine human development for all God’s people. Last week, Mark exhorted us to stay alert, to stay awake. And we need people who will stir us into waking up to what is happening around us, to remind us that there are people around us who are hurting and suffering and unjustly treated, that our Earth is suffering; to remind us that God is present in each situation of hurt, suffering and devastation.
A journalist once founded an award called ‘The Giraffe Project’ to honour people who courageously advocated for others, raised their voices, and stood in solidarity with people to promote human dignity. In South Africa, during the apartheid regime, there were many such people, but now, very few remain prophetic voices as the churches go to bed with the government. Prophetic exceptions exist such as Archbishop Desmond Tutu who, like giraffes, stick their necks out to advocate for those on the lowest rung; those unfairly treated and vilified by church and state.
John the Baptist could also have been a contender for such an award as he appeared when there were few prophetic voices. Like him there are people who encourage and stand with people who lived on Manus Island (where asylum-seekers are being detained by Australia) and were caught in cold-hearted rules and systems more intent on keeping people out rather than welcoming them as asylum seekers and refugees; people who advocate for children, youth, women and men or work to prevent the various forms of modern slavery; people who promote workers’ rights and rights for people living with disabilities; people who struggle for equality and liberation for gay people, women and minority people. These bring to life the dream expressed in the psalm of ‘kindness and truth meeting, justice and peace kissing, truth springing out of the earth while justice looks down from heaven’. This image of ‘kissing’ in the psalm assumes an intimacy, a willingness to be vulnerable [‘able to be wounded’] and a commitment to be in solidarity. Yet, often, the steadfast love and faithfulness still have not met, and righteousness and peace still do not hold hands – let alone kiss.
There is a deep sense of passion and care for people expressed in Isaiah and John. They express God’s heartbeat and passion for humanity as their words and actions touch our hearts with the offer of reassurance and comfort: ‘Comfort, my people. Comfort them!’ John the Baptist was speaking – not unlike in our time – when many so-called prophets were silent. We see in the gospel how people rather than heading for the Temple in the city went to the wilderness to hear him speak of God’s concern for their oppression and need for justice. Archbishop Oscar Romero became the ‘voice of those without voice’ in El Salvador, as did the prophets of our faith [Isaiah, Micah, Ezekiel] and contemporary prophets [Mohammed, Gandhi, Dorothy Day, Martin Luther King, Jr., Rosa Parks, Ita Ford, Maura Clark, Dorothy Kazel and Jean Donovan, Desmond Tutu and Rigoberta Menchu].
Many unlikely people among us have become ‘prophets’ when they day after day confronted our immigration system and particularly the harsh treatment of innocent people on Manus Island. In so many ways they have been present and spoken out against systemic injustices and evil at great personal and social cost. They were vilified, their professionalism questioned, labeled as unpatriotic and even lost friends. But they tried to wake us up or confront people who were lulled in a position of comfort in the face of the evil we do and the evil that is done on our behalf by a Government pretending to look after our interests. They reminded us of the humanity of people made faceless and anonymous. They gave us the hope that change is possible and does happen. They reminded us that our humanity is bound up with the way we engage with the most vulnerable and that if we look into their faces, we might see our faces.
Isaiah imagines the equivalent of a superhighway. But let’s remember that we are called to be peacemakers. Too often we can do more harm than good by trying to force change and growth when ‘the ground’ has not been prepared. This superhighway should not come about with dynamite and bulldozers but with small implements such as a shovel and a bucket of water. Recently in Germany, I was made aware of the fall of the Berlin wall. Its fall seemed like a superhighway had been built to reunify Germany but how many more walls have been erected in our world (Gaza, Arizona), not to mention the walls in our minds and hearts against asylum seekers, Muslims, other minority groups, to divide and exclude people? Ordinary people accomplished great things that seemed impossible because they dreamed and acted, planned and believed.
Like the people in Babylon, the people in detention centres, the people of Gaza, and the people in our urban ghettos who are addicted in some way or homeless, want to know who will raise their voices on their behalf.
Advent calls us to wake up, pay attention, find the glimmers of light in the overwhelming darkness, and find hints of progress, to take courage, and realise that God is at work among us and through us. Each reading today communicates the same thing: Ours is a God who comes to be in our midst. God comes through evil and trials and in prayer, no matter how feeble that may be. God comes to us through the life of another in whom we can see beauty and truth. God comes in the love of one who loves us so deeply and unconditionally that our loveableness is difficult to accept. There is no limit to the ways in which God comes, and for that reason, every juncture of our lives can be a place of encounter with the divine.
As we saw last week, Advent calls us to be on the lookout for the presence of Christ who inhabits our every loss, who is present in each devastation, who is present even in our betrayals and infidelities, and gathers us up when our world has shattered and offers healing now. Mark’s opening words announce a ‘beginning’ (as Genesis did, ‘In the beginning…’). Mark is saying that God is doing something new with the coming of Jesus – a new era, a new covenant and a new people are beginning. The world that was and is stuck in its old, sinful and destructive patterns can be made new and alive.
John and Mary are always calling out that a new spirit and a new time is coming. So we do not go back to Bethlehem, but forward, for Bethlehem is to be found in a new and unknown time.