You know what I especially noticed about the Gospel reading this weekend? The authorities didn’t have a clue what to do with John the Baptist. He just did not fit into their preconceived notions, into their expectations.
What John is doing doesn’t make sense to them: he’s not acting according to any kind of established authority. In fact, he’s subverting it.
And so they ask him, basically, What gives you the right to do what you’re doing?
It reminded me a lot of how some folks, be it mainstream media, or political institutions, or folks who were active in previous movements, just do not seem to have a clue about the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Who are their leaders? What are they asking for? What are the goals of this movement? They want to talk to names they recognize, to established leaders in an existing organizational structure. They want to fit it into some familiar narrative, often a narrative that supports an agenda.
See, I am doing something new!
Now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?
In the wilderness I make a way,
in the wasteland, rivers.
John explains himself by alluding to an image from Isaiah that we discussed last week: he’s the one crying out fix up the roads for the LORD.
That image, and almost all our Advent readings from Isaiah, come from the third part of the book of Isaiah, that was written near the end of the Babylonian exile, after Cyrus had given permission for the Israelites to go back home to Jerusalem. And oddly enough, not all of them were especially enthused about the prospect – or maybe not so oddly, considering human nature. They’d been in Babylon for 50 years or more, so many of them had been born there and had no memory of Jerusalem. Their lives were settled and familiar. Things weren’t that bad, living as second-class citizens in Babylon. Who wants the disruption of change, of upheaval?
(Sound like anything you’ve been hearing recently?)
So Third Isaiah writes these beautiful passages to stir up in people’s hearts a longing for that change:
The spirit of the Lord GOD is upon me,
because the LORD has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring glad tidings to the poor,
to heal the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives
and release to the prisoners,
to announce a year of favor from the LORD
and a day of vindication by our God.
It’s time! he says. Time to rise up, time to be free, time for us who have been weighed down to receive justice.
As the responsorial psalm we get Mary’s song of praise, the Magnificat, the song with which she responded to the greeting of her cousin Elizabeth, whose child — the child who would grow up to be John the Baptist — leapt in her womb upon hearing Mary’s voice. Although the lectionary does not include all the verses, Mary’s song is a joyous proclamation of God’s justice fulfilling God’s promises:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my savior.
For he has looked upon his servant’s lowliness,
And all generations will call me blessed.
The Mighty One has done great things for me,
and holy is his name.
His mercy is from age to age
to those who fear him.
He has shown might with his arm,
dispersed the arrogant of mind and heart.
He has thrown down the rulers from their thrones,
but lifted up the lowly.
The hungry he has filled with good things,
the rich he has sent away empty.
Lifting up the lowly, casting down those who oppress them: that is some good news!
On this Gaudete Sunday, we hear from Paul’s first letter to the church in Thessalonica:
Rejoice always! Pray without ceasing.
In all circumstances give thanks,
for this is the will of God for you in Christ Jesus.
Do not quench the Spirit. Do not despise prophetic utterances. Test everything; retain what is good. Refrain from every kind of evil.
Does it seem odd to you, this call to rejoice, in the midst of an outcry against police brutality especially against black people? When it’s necessary to cry “Black Lives Matter” because our society treats them as if they don’t? When protests feature posters that list and protesters that recite the names of black women and black men that have been killed at the hands of law enforcement? How are we supposed to rejoice now?
Because this movement is beautiful. Because young black women and young black men are rising up to speak a prophetic word to the nation. Because people of all races and ages and sizes and shapes have come out to join them, to affirm that Black Lives Matter, to lift up the names and faces and words of those that have died, to comfort the brokenhearted mothers and fathers and sisters and brothers, to proclaim with their words and with their bodies that now, now, now is the time for the promise of justice to be fulfilled.
I rejoice heartily in the LORD,
in my God is the joy of my soul;
for he has clothed me with a robe of salvation
and wrapped me in a mantle of justice,
like a bridegroom adorned with a diadem,
like a bride bedecked with her jewels.
As the earth brings forth its plants,
and a garden makes its growth spring up,
so will the Lord GOD make justice and praise
spring up before all the nations.
I wanted to end this post with a recording of “Canticle of the Turning,” a setting of the Magnificat by David Haas. I could not find any video that was quite appropriate; both of these are close, but are flawed for the theme of this post.
The first portrays protests (for other causes) and includes scenes that show the plight of black people.
The second is sung primarily by a woman and would be fine… if only the hands holding the world weren’t so white. It shows the lyrics of the piece over a sky that has some pink (for Gaudete Sunday) and shows text that prays for justice over the instrumental bridges.