Jonah House once again participated in the Feast of the Holy Innocents witness at the Pentagon. Neither rain nor sleet could keep us away. Four friends committed civil disobedience and divine obedience.
Jonah House once again participated in the Feast of the Holy Innocents witness at the Pentagon. Neither rain nor sleet could keep us away. Four friends committed civil disobedience and divine obedience.
By Gary Ashbeck
The stories out of Washington have been frequent, bad, and numerous lately. Big stories seem to be dropping hourly. Indictments, bad policy, chaos, and numerous things contrary to our faith. When I first started to contemplate Advent, this was the influence, but within the last week the pace has picked up. It seems that Christians are the most complicit in sustaining this dark moral travesty. I also feel that we have grown weary and complacent. I personally feel the weariness and darkness inside.
There is but one antidote, I realized: a stronger faith community. Pulling together the flock.
I think there are some people who would be happy to see an upheaval in our government. Many would cheer for an impeachment. I’m not so sure. We are a divided people and I think it would only get darker and more contentious… but the daily onslaught against God’s people must stop.
I don’t know how to say it any stronger, so I’ll just say it again. We need to be celebrating Advent with every ounce of energy in our bodies. We need to celebrate Christmas with every ounce of energy in our bodies. I don’t want to sound hopeless, because I am not. I am feeling light and warmth from the last three Sundays. Hope, love, joy, and now peace. I feel energized that I have been blessed to sit here and share my musings on the Scriptures and delight in our fellowship.
Today we start the week of peace in Advent. It’s a short one, as Christmas is only two days away.
Today Mary will give her testimony. Actually no, I added that. The prescribed readings the church has given us are only the first part, that of Elizabeth shouting out for joy of the coming of Mary to her humble house. She will declare how the baby she was carrying was moved by the presence of the baby Mary was carrying. She will shout out that the messianic promise will come in short order on the shoulders of the baby Mary was carrying. The joy in this scene between Elizabeth with John and Mary with Jesus springs off the pages.
But I refused to stop there because it does not do justice to the total story presented in that scene. Mary then utters what we now call the Magnificat. It is frequently sung as a hymn. This is the longest statement spoken by a woman in the New Testament, a rarity that signals its great importance. The message in the Magnificat is so revolutionary that the British banned it from being sung in churches when they ruled India. Guatemala in the 80s banned public readings or singing of it, and in Argentina the military banned any public display of it during the dirty war. It was banned because it gave people hope that God does not want them to be second class. God demands justice. Before Dietrich Bonhoeffer was executed, he included this in an Advent sermon:
“The song of Mary is the oldest Advent hymn. It is at once the most passionate, the wildest, one might even 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 the power of God and the powerlessness of humankind.”
I felt this scene needed proper context and representation, so I went to the Women’s Bible Commentary in a chapter written by Jane Schaberg, and also found some additional material from Reverend Carolyn Sharp of the Yale Divinity School. There was much discussion about how Mary had essentially given herself over to God to carry this child Jesus. She will give herself over to raise this child to adulthood and then she will watch as his message, his messianic promise, gets him executed on the cross as a political dissident, an execution encouraged by people who shared his faith but not his desire to level out power dynamics.
In this moment, Mary is given over to prophecy. Sharp says, “Don’t envision Mary as the radiant woman peacefully composing the Magnificat.” Instead see her as “a girl who sings defiantly to her God through her tears, fists clenched against an unknown future.” She outlines the messianic promise but she comes to it as someone who is the most marginalized, most maligned, and, in being pregnant, risks being stoned.
The Magnificat is not a peaceful message. God has shown might with his arm, dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart. God has thrown down rulers from their thrones. God has lifted up the lowly. The hungry have been filled and the rich sent away empty. Again, from Schaberg: “Mary’s song is precious to women for its vision of their concrete freedom from systemic injustice—from oppression by political leaders on their thrones and by the arrogant and rich. In the transformed social order that is celebrated, food is provided for the hungry. The spiritual realm is understood as embedded in socioeconomic and political reality. Focus is on the might, holiness, and mercy of God, who has promised solidarity with those who suffer, and who is true to those promises. God is magnified for effecting changes—now in history.”
But the Magnificat is a message that should bring about a true peace. The messianic promise that she proclaims and that Jesus will repeat in his first public testimony is a promise of upheaval in the status quo. The testimony is so unpopular that Jesus narrowly escapes the crowds who are so angry that they want to kill him. He disturbed the pseudo-peace in attempting to bring about real peace. Later we will see a similar theme in the Beatitudes. People were angry and tried in many ways to stop Jesus. The message does resonate with the marginalized who want his promise to come and suffering to end. It will continue to cause turmoil until change brings about real peace, not unlike how the actions of Martin Luther King Jr. exposed the violence of the status quo in an effort to bring justice and, with it, peace. The pseudo-peace was destroyed with the violence that he lifted the veil on, but his message resonated with those who were treated as second-class citizens in the United States and began to truly threaten the powers that be when he started to call attention to class struggle before he was assassinated.
So, we remain in the thousands of years’ struggle for the fruition of the messianic promise. As we enter the last week of Advent, we must remember that Advent does not and should not end at Christmas. The status quo is immoral and easy. It doesn’t want to raise a real ruckus when injustice occurs. It enjoys a pseudo-peace. Injustice abounds. The mantle of the messianic promise falls on us to continue on with Jesus’ teaching. It is not easy. We are a curmudgeonly sort, easily influenced to build golden calves. We, like the Maccabees, need to struggle to keep the faith. We must disturb the pseudo-peace. We need to gather in community and stand strong. The lessons we learn in Advent help us to continue the struggle after Christmas is gone.
Just before the Magnificat, Elizabeth finishes her greeting with, “Blessed are you who believed that what was spoken to you by the lord would be fulfilled.” Let’s try to keep hope and believe.
What do the words of the Magnificat mean to you?
How should we continue to celebrate Advent after Christmas?
By Gary Ashbeck
“A people which seriously calls God alone its ruler must become a true people, a community where all members are ruled by honesty without compulsion, kindness without hypocrisy, and the kinship of those who are passionately devoted to their divine leader. When social inequity, distinction between the free and unfree, splits the community and creates chasms between its members, there can be no true people, there can be no ‘God’s people.’”
Gates of Prayer Meditation and Reading #40, gender-neutral language added
We are now in the third week of advent. The theme for the week is joy. The readings for this week are going to be more upbeat. In the first reading from Zephaniah, we are not disappointed. “Shout for joy; sing joyfully.” We get one week of singing and dancing in the course of our Advent work, to reflect and then set out to practice the work we are called to do.
I’ve been watching a lot of documentaries on Ernest Shackleton lately. He was a British explorer who led three expeditions in Antarctica. His expeditions were known as heroic failures. He managed to successfully get his expedition team out of many tough situations, like being adrift on an ice floe for a year, but ultimately wouldn’t be able to achieve his goal of reaching the Pole. One thing he did to keep morale up was for his crew to celebrate everything they possibly could. Every birthday, every anniversary, any reason to have a party would be celebrated. It’s one of the things I remember about my time living at Jonah House. We always had reasons to celebrate. Just gathering together was sometimes all the reason we needed to be joyous. This week is our excuse to celebrate, be joyful, because the messianic promise will soon arrive.
Today in the Gospel reading we have John the Baptist giving a sermon. Again, the subject matter is what we have been talking about, the lessons of Advent: forgiveness, justice. John preached of a societal change. He also gets us in the mood to be joyful. His good news gives the people an idea that maybe he is the one, but he says he is nothing compared to what is coming. He gives the people hope that soon their wait will be over.
Henri Nouwen taught that while happiness is dependent on external conditions, “joy is the experience of knowing you are unconditionally loved and nothing—sickness, failure, emotional distress, oppression, war, or even death—can take that away.”
This joy, as I keep reading in different sources, is one of knowing we are created and loved. In this idea of joy coming from unconditional love there are a couple of different elements. Unconditional love requires forgiveness because we all are going to miss the mark at some point. If God gives us unconditional love, then to follow God’s example, we must give unconditional love. Forgiveness is what we are called to as Christians.
Anthony DeMello writes that what pleases God is not that we worship God, but that we allow ourselves to be transformed by God. God would be more pleased by your loving than by your adoration.
Forgiveness is letting go. You must let go of your feelings of hurt and anger so that you are not consumed by it. Grudges interfere with joy. Letting go is difficult in forgiveness. This doesn’t necessarily mean let violators go unpunished, but that is where truth and reconciliation come in. That is another big topic that I won’t cover. A murderer should be forgiven but also face consequences that hopefully can help create right relationship again.
There is also just letting go from this world. The world does not revolve around death and taxes. The real world is our web of relationships. There are so many arrows in our world that will distract us from God. We must let go. It seems like much of the world is an intentional distraction. We are perpetually bombarded by advertisements to try to persuade you to want things your really don’t need. We are focused on social media that research has shown actually causes people to feel more depressed and detached rather than give them the community they tell us it will bring. I believe that here you will find letting go is freedom.
In letting go you can also pause to be able to hear your own body and maybe hear God. Remember the story of Elijah waiting for God, and after thunder and earthquakes God comes as a little whisper of a breeze. That is where quiet prayer and meditation come in.
And there is still another letting go. Read the newspaper or watch the news. It’s hard to experience joy when faced with what is happening to God’s people around the world. They are also just as blessed by God. This is where another joy can come. If you go back to what Henri Nouwen said, joy is also freedom. Nothing to lose. There are a few times in my life that I can describe as joyful. Some of these experiences have been in deep community experiences where the people I have been with have shown absolute unconditional love and understanding. The other experiences are when I allowed myself to completely let go and take a risk out of love. These would be direct actions. Some of the most profoundly joyful experiences I have had were when I had fully thrown myself, full body, into spreading God’s message.
Now, this can be a dangerous statement. There are people who take it too far, fanatics (and some would label me one), but I think it’s obvious that despite what they say, they are following more of their own ego in ministry rather than presenting God’s message, and are therefore damaging to God’s people and to creation. I think there is a litmus test and I’ll give an example to explain how I feel where those litmus tests may lie.
My trial for my SOA action was two months after the action. It was very difficult for me because I was one of three who had refused bail, but I was separated from the others in jail and for trial. I was physically in bad shape from the jailing. The marshals were messing with me pretty badly and I had spent one of the days in a 40-degree carport in a t-shirt with them telling the jail they were on their way to pick me up and never did. When I finally presented my case in front of a judge, I knew he was going to convict me and give me a maximum sentence, so I felt the freedom to present my case as to why I trespassed, and really exposed my most vulnerable self to the court. I was convicted and hauled back to the jail. I returned to my bunk in what I can only describe as ecstatic joy. What made me the most joyful was that I regretted nothing I said, and felt it was delivered in the most loving, respectful, compassionate way that I possibly could. I felt it was devoid of ego and done really as a prayer. I felt that my witness was strong and possibly transforming to those watching. It may have affected the judge in some fashion because he had not fined me, but only sentenced me to prison. I also felt the freest I ever had. It was almost like I was flying. I have had other experiences where I felt I had gotten pulled into an ego battle with a judge or regretted a statement I may have made, but on this occasion, I really felt I was only a medium channeling a message of love. It is also a very dark place to be experiencing such elation.
This is where I believe the litmus test is. Acting out of a love and compassion that is respectful and without injuring another party, and without focusing on your own personal suffering as the end-all be-all of the witness. This is where the “I love the sinner but I think they should be jailed, killed or marginalized in some way” type of Christianity fails the test. This is where the abortion clinic bombers will fail. I think deep down we know it too. I once was on trial for attending a silent vigil and the police decided to arrest us because they didn’t want us there. In trial the police concocted a story about us screaming and yelling at people because a silent vigil is never going to give the impression of a threat to anyone’s public safety. It was necessary to prove that our conduct was disorderly, which was the charge. After it came out that it was a silent vigil and there had been no reason to arrest us, the judge acquitted us.
It seems that the idea of joy in this third week is a natural progression of transforming ourselves for the messianic promise. Joy is letting go of ourselves and the world, transforming ourselves, and participating in the promise. This is where I want to leave it for us to discuss.
What is joy?
Is joy freedom?
How do we or could we let go?
How do we experience joy in our lives?
How do we let go and be transformed by God?
How do we build stronger, more joyful communities?
By Gary Ashbeck
As we begin the second week of advent, we are to continue to await fulfilment of the messianic promise that Jesus is bringing. John the Baptist is appearing to us in the gospels this week. His mission was as forerunner. He had people look inward into their souls and repent for their sins and change their ways. People flocked to him in the desert. As a symbol of renewal John would baptize. He also called out people who abused power to an immoral end. Herod and religious leaders were his biggest targets. Herod was his biggest target but it took some time for Herod to finally execute him, and he did so trapped by his ego. He held him in prison for some time and would even go listen to him. In Mark 6:20 It is reported that Herod feared him knowing John to be a righteous and holy man.
The theme for this week of advent is love. We are called to love. We will learn through the scripture how much of Jesus messianic vision was focused on love. His whole sermon on the mount where we get our beatitudes from is focused on how we are supposed to show love. His focus repeatedly is also on the poor, oppressed, the underdog of society. Love is the tool for the messianic promise to take root.
Jesus not only implored us to love but showed love in a variety of different ways. He healed people. He also acknowledged the existence of some people breaking down social class structures. He violated the cleanliness laws to bring humanity to others teaching us that the law was made for people, not people for the law.
In the readings this week both the first reading and the gospel use similar phrasing. “ever lofty mountain shall be made low and that the age-old depths and gorges be filled to level the ground” “Prepare the way of the lord, make straight the paths, every valley shall be filled and every mountain and fill shall be made low. The winding road shall be made straight and the rough ways made smooth, and all flesh shall see the salvation of god.
These phrases are sandwiched with repeated phrasing “the peace of justice” and “his mercy and justice”. I don’t think these readings are a call for land development. They seem more in line with another form of evening things out that is the messianic promise.
Frequently the high and mighty and the arrogant are called out in the bible as sinful. When a king is appointed over Israel it is not without a warning of how power corrupts. Repeated kings despite starting out on a positive note ended abusing power in their positions. Part of the sermon on the mount a reversal of class structure is preaching.
“Blessed are the poor in spirit, for
theirs is the kingdom of heaven.
Blessed are those who mourn, for they will be comforted.
Blessed are the meek, for they will inherit the earth.
Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they will be filled.
Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.”
The scriptures also show that the very first Christian community that formed after Jesus left the earth was a community of shared resources. The rich step down and the poorer are lifted up.
This is the messianic idea of love. Love everyone, enemies included. Bring them into your community and circle. Treat everyone and every need as holy. I am reminded of a mural in Washington DC that states something like if you look down on someone have your hand outreached to help them back up.
Without love, justice cannot come. Without justice peace cannot come. With a lack of love in our hearts, with an idea in our heads that a race, class or type of person unlike ourselves is inferior, Jesus messianic promise cannot produce fruit.
So how does that work in the real world? I have a couple examples. One is theoretical and one is a life experience. 15 years ago, I started studying economics as it related to trade. This was the time when a lot of attention was being placed on free trade which was pushed by both parties but we were finding examples where it was not democratic, predatory, and undermining of economies to the benefit of large companies and also shuttering the little guys companies as well. One theory presented by Robin Hahnel a professor of Economics at American university was very interesting. After much research he concluded that the best way for globalized trade to work was to provide an unequal advantage to smaller weaker economies in an effort to stabilize, and grow that economy where then they would no longer need that advantage. Then instead of one economy growing at the expense of another, both economies would grow. The larger economy would be taking the burden but that economy would be able to take the difference short term adding incentive to grow the smaller economy as quick as possible so to lessen the burden. It is essentially filling every valley and every mountain shall be made low.
I started with “Nothing will happen unless people like us believe in God’s promise and base our lives on its fulfillment”. John the Baptist’s life was based on Gods promise to be fulfilled.
Years ago, when I was in jail in Georgia, I had made a conscious decision to stay out of the commodity trade and to give without expecting anything in return. I did have the privilege of being able to get as much money placed in my commissary account because people all over the country were offering me help. I considered that to also be a trade that benefited the jail so I stayed out of that as much as possible too. The currency was the honey bun and you could purchase things from other guys with buns. Other things worked as well like parts of your meals.
I didn’t drink the milk so I would just ask the nearest guy if he wanted it. That spread the exchange around to everyone. Keep in mind this also was illegal. You are not allowed to share in jail and I did it blatantly. It really took everyone by surprise and so guys would watch for items I seemed to prefer (a stretch considering these were terrible meals) and would offer me things but in a more casual exchange. It was a gift economy like Ulysses on our street has been doing. The other benefit though was the spirit of it all. I was quickly identified as something different. The other men would come to me to talk and tell me things I know they were not telling anyone else because they trusted me. It helped topple the purposeful actions by the guards to get the other guys to despise me when mail came. I was getting a ton of mail sometimes 15 letters a day. They would come in to pass out mail and read the names loudly off of each letter. My name would be read over and over even though they had bundled them together. I was mortified, but there actually seemed to be some pride that I was with them. I learned so much from guys would had been in Iraq and Kosovo and just how life was for them and who they missed.
Last week was hope that the messianic promise would come take root. This week we are given a tool, love, and think about how we can use it to bring forth the messianic promise in our communities. I attest that love is the only thing that can fulfil the promise.
They will know we are Christians by our love one song goes. Another says we are called to love one another, love tenderly, serve one another, to walk humbly with God.
By Gary Ashbeck
To introduce this whole Advent series: Around October, some members of the Collins Street community gathered and decided that with the turmoil in both government and churches, we should start meeting in prayer. I felt strongly that special consideration of Advent should be made because of its importance, and so I started doing some reading. The synagogue shooting in Pittsburgh hit home pretty hard. Not only does our family belong to a synagogue, but Noah’s school is located at that same synagogue, and both boys attended preschool there. They sent out notifications of their safety plan since they were a possible target for the increasing insanity. Condemnation of the act was weak from the executive branch of government, and the remarks showed an absolute lack of morality, as seems to be a recurring problem these days. I felt that the strongest statement I could make was to celebrate my faith as strongly as I could. That Friday we made a point to celebrate Shabbat and I turned my sights with renewed energy towards Advent.
Today is the first Sunday of Advent. It is the first day of the church year, a time for us to prepare for the coming of Jesus the messiah and the new world he is to usher in. He is the catalyst to bring forth justice and peace.
Coincidentally, tonight also happens to be the first night of Hanukkah. The celebration of Hanukkah commemorates a miracle that happened after the outcome of a struggle for religious freedom. Judea had come under Syrian control and after a succession of kings the Jewish religion was outlawed and Jews were forced to worship Greek gods. Many Jews had long since turned to the Hellenistic culture because of the lure of the supposed “modern realities” that it possessed. It wasn’t enough for the Syrians to outlaw the faith—they subverted the temples and forced the Jews to violate their customs and practices. The Second Temple was seized and desecrated through the erection of an altar to Zeus. People were forced to eat pork under the threat of torture and death. The final insult was the sacrifice of swine in this temple.
A successful rebellion that took years freed Jerusalem and a new altar was built in the temple. The menorah was to be lit to rededicate the temple and allow the Jews to be able to celebrate their faith again. This is when the miracle of Hanukkah happened: They only had enough oil to light the menorah for one night, but somehow the menorah stayed lit for eight nights, in time for more oil to be made. (This is really a very abbreviated description; a look at the two books of the Maccabees and Michael Lerner’s book “Jewish Renewal” would tell you more.)
Like the rededication of the temple and purification of the Jewish faith, Advent is also a rededication of ourselves on a yearly basis. It should also be a purification of the faith. It is a time for us to prepare for the birth of Jesus on Christmas. At the end of the month we will also celebrate the coming of a new year, with all our new plans and resolutions to better ourselves.
Advent is a time for us to reflect upon ourselves and our world. We are to prepare ourselves by reflecting on the teachings we have received from Scripture and the rededication of our lives to make those words “flesh,” or real, in our present day. We are to rededicate our lives to make those words flesh in our present day.
We are promised that Jesus the Messiah will help. The Messiah is supposed to usher in a new world. Isaiah tells what the fruits of the Messiah will be: Nations will destroy their implements of war and destruction and rework them into farm implements, tools of life- growing food. Jeremiah says the Messiah would do what is right and just in the land, and Judah will be safe and the Judeans would be safe and secure. In contrast, today one Christian leader publicly stated that he would not condemn the murder of a journalist because it would cause a loss in arms sales revenue. That statement did not elicit much outrage.
There was some argument about who the Messiah would actually be when they arrived. One theory was that the Messiah would come as a powerful military leader like Judah Maccabee. Other theories were that the Messiah would be a sage or high priest. Last was the theory that he would come as a prophet like Moses. Either way, they would come and be a savior to Israel and bring forth an era of peace.
Who was Jesus as the Messiah? We get an idea from his forerunner John the Baptist. John lived simply and humbly. He was part of the Essenes community that lived together, dedicated themselves to voluntary poverty, and lived ascetically, denying themselves pleasures to pursue spiritual goals. John confronted immoral behavior in the people of power. It ultimately caused his execution. His teachings had impact and people came to him in crowds to cleanse themselves through baptism. He was a breath of fresh air. He had a moral weight to him. When people who came to him as many come to churches today—with piety on their lips and the devil in their heart—he confronted them.
The theme for the first week of Advent is hope. We are in hope of the new era that the Messiah is to bring in. What better time to have that hope? What better time to act on that hope? How much of modern-day Christianity is based on a messianic age that is maybe not what we had expected? How much has been co-opted by people in power? Who even recalls in Scripture what the characteristics were of the first Christian communities? Was the era to be a magical moment or was it a catalyst of a continued struggle long after Jesus left the earth? Are people so worried that the story of creation is not going to be taught in schools that they don’t realize there are actually two stories of creation in the Bible?
One thing we do know: Jesus was our example. He lived a life of compassion, and was always the champion of those underfoot, below the people in power. He held people accountable to the faith. I am a fan of how Professor Obery Hendricks describes Jesus’ basic teaching: “The needs of the people are holy.” Jesus was in constant struggle with those in positions of power in the commonly held faith, and called them out on abandoning the faith and the people because they chose power instead.
What clearer message can be given today? We live in a world where Scripture is being used to separate families. We live in a world where the pot of hate is stirred to keep us arguing and separate, allowing us to be fleeced by people constantly with the words “Jesus” and ”freedom” on their lips. We live in a period where God’s creation is hoped to be destroyed for the second coming, and rape culture not confronted because of political desires.
The Syrians had outlawed the Jewish faith. Jesus struggled against a faith that had been co-opted by power and was no longer authentic. That was the state of his messianic promise. He didn’t wage wars. He walked around talking to people, and offering compassion. He confronted those “whitewashed tombs” of people who were the reason he needed to give compassion to others. He fought religious means of excluding people who were unclean. He had compassion like the prophets for the poor, sick, and lame. His life started as a refugee and the trajectory of his mission was towards confronting the powers in Jerusalem. In his triumphant arrival into Jerusalem, he still arrived humbly on a donkey.
Today we still have the hope that Jesus’ world will come. Now it is our turn. This is a struggle for religious freedom. We know Jesus would not teargas refugees. He would rail against situations that created those refugees. We know Jesus would accept all people and treat all people’s needs as holy. And that is how we need to celebrate Advent. That is how we need to celebrate this first week of hope. The times now show that we need to celebrate this harder than we ever have before.
Let’s celebrate Advent, let’s celebrate hope. What does hope look like for you?