Homily for the Third Sunday in Advent

December 14, 2008

St. Agnes, Cincinnati

(Based on Isaiah 61:1-2a, 10-11; 1 Thessalonians 5:16-24; John 1:6-8, 19-28)

      “The spirit of the Lord is upon me;

      he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.”

We have moved into the heart of the Advent season and for our prayer and reflection in today’s liturgy the church offers us one of the great texts in all the Scriptures. It spans the whole of salvation history, from the Hebrew scriptures through the life and ministry of Jesus, and down to our day.

We hear the text first in the joyful cry of the prophet Isaiah 600 years before Christ. The Israelite people had been captives in exile in Babylon, far from their homeland and their holy Temple. We know of the event but it can be hard for us to appreciate how painful it must have been for each one personally. We can get some help from the pathos shown by the writer of Psalm 137:

      By the streams of Babylon

            we sat and wept

            when we remembered Zion.

      On the aspens of that land

            we hung our harps.

      For we had been asked

            to sing to our captors,

            to entertain those who had carried us off:

      ‘Sing,’ they said

            ‘some songs of Zion.’

It was not enough for the oppressors even to drive them from their homeland. Like bullies everywhere they had to taunt and make sport of their captives. There follows one of the most poignant verses in all of the Scriptures:

      How could we sing a song of the Lord

            in a foreign land?

How could we sing a song of the Lord in an alien land? How indeed? How be joyful? How sing?

And then suddenly liberation comes. And note that it doesn’t come from their king or their religious leaders, it comes from a pagan ruler, the Persian Cyrus, who happens to be a wise and decent leader. For the poet Isaiah it was like being in total darkness, in a dungeon – in modern speech we might call it ‘solitary confinement’ – for 50 years and all of a sudden the door to the cell bursts open and suddenly there is this joyous light. The response can’t be contained: it has to elicit a shout of great joy. (Some of us are old enough to recall that this Sunday in Advent was called gaudete Sunday: rejoice!) It’s God’s work, and Isaiah describes it as a foretaste of the kingdom of peace and justice promised to us.

Then the same prophetic text is pronounced by Jesus in Luke, chapter 4. He’s at the beginning of his public ministry. He gets up in the synagogue in his home town and people are wondering what he is going to be about, what his mission is. And he says ‘The spirit of the Lord is upon me; he has anointed me to bring glad tidings to the poor.” If you ever wondered why he came and what he was all about, it’s all there: he comes to bring liberation from all that enslaves us and holds us captive. To be light that can overcome every form of blindness and darkness that immobilizes us and stops us in our tracks.

And the church today is applying that same text, not just to the beginning of Jesus’ ministry but to the moment of his incarnation at Bethlehem.

Every time the text appears it’s announcing a new beginning: the new beginning of the people after the exile in Babylon, the new beginning of the independent life of Jesus after Mary’s pregnancy, the new beginning of his public ministry after his years of preparation in Nazareth – and the new beginning of this Christmas, when we have the promise of new light to guide us through whatever darkness we face in the coming year.

And there are plenty of signs that there will be much darkness indeed in the next stage of our story.

It was perhaps captured best in a photo on the front page of yesterday’s New York Times. It was a photo of a manufacturing plant, very imposing and severe and sterile looking. All very impersonal, except for two lone human figures at the center of the picture. They were a man and a woman, in a tearful embrace, standing outside the place where they had just lost their jobs because the plant had been closed. How can we sing the songs of the Lord in an alien land?

And every day we hear new stories of massive layoffs yet to come, of plants closing; ever longer lines at unemployment offices, and people on the verge of losing their homes. Close to home we experience it in the strain of ever greater numbers of people coming to our St. Vincent de Paul food and assistance line.

The darkness is all around us, and our God calls us to be light; we are called to be people of the promise.

We look for glimmers of light, of possible new beginnings. And it is only natural that our imaginations might take us to January 20 and the inauguration of our new president. It has been a long time since a presidential inauguration has given rise to such hope.

It will be a new beginning, for sure, no matter what follows. But if it is not to be a false dawn, founded on unrealistic, utopian expectations, we will have to do a difficult thing. We will have to shift our attention from even such a charismatic figure as Barack Obama and stay focused, not on the man but on the message he has been trying to get us to hear all along. Remember, the slogan or mantra of his campaign was not “Yes I Can,” it was “Yes We Can.”

Barack Obama has been clear at every stage that he is not the Messiah. He is not Moses. He spoke much like John the Baptist in today’s Gospel. “Let’s be clear: If you’re looking for the Messiah, I’m not your man. Don’t lay those expectations on me. Because you will be disappointed.” He said over and over that his great vision and dreams cannot succeed unless we work at developing bonds of solidarity with our neighbors. They won’t happen unless and until we work at sharing responsibility for what happens on our street and in our neighborhood and in our city and, yes, in our nation. The time is past when we can put our destiny in the hands of ‘them’ – whether they are members of our neighborhood community council, or the mayor or city council, or our state and national legislators – or our president and his administration. We have to learn once more the arts and skills and personal commitment involved in being citizens.

The liturgy today tells us that the same Spirit that was poured out and animated the response of Isaiah in 587 BC was poured out on Jesus; it was poured out on the infant church at Pentecost; and it is still poured out on us the church in 2008, through our Baptism and Confirmation.

In the difficult times we face we will be called to be light when a brother or sister is tempted to despair under their burden – or when a bad policy has to be changed. We will be called to show that it is possible to be people of joy in hard times because we are people who trust in the Lord’s promise. We will be called to show forth in our lives that God is Immanuel, a god who has taken flesh, our flesh. We will be called to reveal to the world a light that the darkness cannot quench..

And yes, we will be called to show that the spirit of the Lord is upon us, that we are anointed to bring glad tidings to the poor. And yes, that it is possible, even in these trying times, to sing. To sing the songs of the Lord – even in an alien land.