Tuesday, December 22, 2015

The Mad Truth of Advent 4: The Messenger meets The Message

Reflection for Advent 4, 2015

Reading: Luke 1:39-45

There are moments in the gospel when one has a sense of shock and disbelief, almost as if one has somehow wandered into Louis Carroll’s Alice Through the Looking Glass and heard the White Queen proclaim that sometimes she had believed “as many as six impossible things before breakfast.” In the first chapter Luke tells the improbable story of John the Baptist’s birth to the elderly Elizabeth; and then the even more improbable story of the Annunciation and the Virgin Mary conceiving a child; and then, the very questionable claim of Elizabeth that her unborn child, the Baptist, moved in

her womb as Mary came to see her.

Luke shows us a world in which God acts and the most extraordinary things happen to people and through people.  Of course we can say ‘impossible, I don’t believe that’ and declare Luke either a literary artist carried away by his invention or a shameless fabricator.  

But before we become too entrenched in our incredulity we might also pause to recall some of the extraordinary advances in science and medicine and how things previously unimagined have become reality.   Which raises the question: is our understanding of reality insufficient?  Is it possible that the deep reality of our universe is more complex, more densely layered than we like to allow?  When Luke presents us with what seems incomprehensible are we being confronted by a deeper reality that operates beyond (and despite) our conceptual horizon?

So here we have these two extraordinary women meeting womb to womb:  each used by God; each bearing an agent of the divine purpose; and might it then be too fanciful to imagine the enwombed John, bounded by water and the drum of flesh, virtually deaf and blind, yet recognising the presence of his unborn Lord?  Is it too strange that the prophetic Elizabeth cries out in wonder?  We see that Elizabeth recognises Mary as “mother of my Lord”; that John the Baptist recognises Jesus; and, if you like, the Messenger meets the Message. Luke’s narrative takes us to the threshold of our imagination and draws us to awaken into wonder.

The contemplative Thomas Merton in his poem ‘The Quickening of John the Baptist’ (1949) addressed the unborn John with burning words:
…What secret syllable
Woke your young faith to the mad truth
That an unborn baby could be washed in the spirit of God?
Oh burning joy!...

At the heart of this gospel is the call that awakens us to the God who reaches to us through the flesh and the things of the earth, reaching beyond our knowing and inviting us to recognise and respond, to be quickened and brought to life – like the unborn John the Baptist.

How are to be quickened and brought to life?  What does that mean for us?  The TV news this week with its report on the Christmas season, alongside the scenes of flurried or weary shoppers, has also reported queues at the City Mission in Auckland with people waiting for hours, from before dawn till noon, to collect a Christmas parcel.  With that image in mind – hear these words of the Catholic spiritual writer and campaigner for social justice, Dorothy Day.

Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts.
But now it is with the voice of our contemporaries that he speaks, with the eyes of store clerks, factory workers, and children that he gazes; with the hands of office workers, slum dwellers, and suburban housewives that he gives.  It is with the feet of soldiers and tramps that he walks, and with the heart of anyone in need that he longs for shelter.  And giving shelter or food to anyone who asks for it, or needs it, is giving it to Christ…

The thought that ‘Christ is always with us, always asking for room in our hearts’ is a transforming thought.  If we can truly grasp this thought we are moved past platitude into action: the fog of indifference and unbelief fades; and we no longer see the world merely as a neutral space created for our gratification and indulgence but instead as the place of decision and action where we are called to recognise our Lord and bid Him welcome.

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