Today’s readings: Jeremiah 33, 14-16; 1 Thessalonians 3, 12 - 4, 2; Luke 21, 25-28.34-36.
The incarnation, God who became man, is at the core of Christianity, but in its meaning it extends much further than the nativity story. We need more depth in grasping God’s presence in time and space and we need to reach out much further than just the narrative of Bethlehem. God’s relations with humanity venture to transform history and redeem all its distortions.
The revolutionary statement that “Christ became a human being that we might become divine” is attributed to Athanasius, a Church Father of the 3rd century. Our becoming ‘divine’ is, strictly speaking, the completion of God becoming a human being. Athanasius uttered his statement in the midst of harsh doctrinal disputes at that point in time of an evolving Christianity.
The disputes we are faced with today are not of that same doctrinal type. In today’s first reading, Jeremiah sounds like he had a deep sense of the looming public issues that were weakening the social fabric of the society he lived in. He speaks of what for us was to be God’s incarnation as a “virtuous branch” and he proposes “honesty and integrity” as a remedy to the maladies of his day.
His words focus on the need to rebuild the polis, the city where people live and relate, where the basic networks of family, friendship and business were deteriorating. He dreams of a regeneration of the city where God could still make Himself manifest. As he writes, “this is the name the city will be called: The Lord-our-integrity”.
As with Jeremiah, even in the gospel the words of Jesus convey a sense of urgency and sounds very apocalyptic and fear-instilling. From Jeremiah to Jesus hundreds of years had elapsed and Jeremiah’s prophecy was still far from fulfilled. Even from Jesus to our times, a lot of time has gone by and we still see things as they are and desire them to be different.
Both Jeremiah and Jesus are speaking truth to power, which in classical Greek was known as parrhesia. According to philosopher Michel Foucault, who wrote extensively about the virtue of parrhesia, only the courageous may pursue the truth-to-power course. If our life is not virtuous, then it becomes vicious and heading to destruction.
Perhaps one would have expected a more romantic entrance to Advent, which is the prelude to Christmas. But there is so much around us and inside us that tarnishes the narrative we are about to celebrate that we risk living the illusion that the festive season can provide a temporary cover up for our viciousness.
Jeremiah today is the voice of deep grief, but one who never gives up on God. He has a robust view of God. Jesus is the personification of that robustness and he provokes us to be combative in life, otherwise we are taken unawares “like a trap”. From the words of Jesus, it is not what the end of the world will bring about that we should fear, but rather how we will end up if we do not mend at least some of our ways.
In the second reading, St Paul recommends that our hearts be confirmed “in holiness” and urges us “to make more and more progress in the kind of life that we are meant to live”. As theologian Frances Young writes, “holiness is not one’s accomplishment, but an emptiness within which it is possible to receive, an emptiness God will fill”. Advent is meant precisely to create that emptiness in us where the echo of hope can point to the God who regenerates history. While we need to grieve for all that tarnishes history, the Lord calls on us to “stand with confidence”, not to passively let things take their course but to learn how to combat evil. That is how we become divine, belonging to a history redeemed.
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