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Thursday, December 22, 2011

Meditation on This Sunday's Gospel

by Kristin Berkey-Abbott

The readings for Sunday, December 25, 2011:

Choice 1:

First Reading: Isaiah 62:6-12

Psalm: Psalm 97

Second Reading: Titus 3:4-7

Gospel: Luke 2:[1-7] 8-20

Choice 2:

First Reading: Isaiah 52:7-10

Psalm: Psalm 98

Second Reading: Hebrews 1:1-4 [5-12]

Gospel: John 1:1-14


In this season of dying dictators (Muammar Gaddafi and Kim Jong Il) and dying dissidents (Vaclav Havel), it is interesting to come across the Gospel from John for Christmas day. I’ve watched Koreans weeping for their “dear leader” who left thousands of his people to starve to death, literally, in the cold. I’ve been reflecting on the way that language can shape us for good and evil. And now, here’s an uncommon metaphor for God: God as a word that lives amongst us.

I’ve been thinking about how despots use language to convince the people that they’re living different lives than the reality they actually experience. I’m thinking about how dissidents use a similar tool to dismantle empires. Anne Applebaum wrote a great essay about Havel for Tuesday's The Washington Post. She writes:

"In this essay (‘The Power of the Powerless’), Havel didn’t talk about marches or demonstrations. Instead, he asked the inhabitants of totalitarian countries to 'live in truth': that is, to go about their daily lives as if the regime did not exist, to the extent that was possible in societies where the state ran all businesses and all schools, owned most of the property and banned free speech and free press. By the late 1980s, 'living in truth' was widely practiced across central Europe. The first time I went to Poland in 1987, I stayed with friends. According to the law, I was supposed to register my presence in a private home with the police. 'We don’t do that,' my friends told me. 'We don’t believe the police have the right to know who stays with us.' I didn’t register — and because thousands of other people didn’t either, that law became unenforceable.

But Havel proposed more than mere civil disobedience. He also argued in favor of what we would now call civil society, urging the inhabitants of totalitarian states to found small institutions — musical groups, sporting groups, literary groups — that would develop the 'independent life of society' and prevent their members from being totally controlled from above. This, too, was widely practiced, in Prague’s famous underground philosophy seminars, in the illegal printing presses all across the communist world, in Poland’s independent 'Flying University,' and, most successfully, in Poland’s independent trade unions."

Reading about these resistance techniques reminded me of Nelson Mandela, who spent his decades in prison not plotting revenge but dreaming about the best ways to govern. When he was released and elected president, he was ready with plans for creating a better South Africa.

The good news that the angels announce is not just that God has come to live in our neighborhoods in the messiness that is a human life, although that would certainly be good enough news. But the true scope of the message has to do with the redemption of creation. God has broken through the dictatorships that would hold our imaginations in dank prisons. The redemption of creation is underway, and we’re invited to participate.

We can choose to live as people of God, no matter what our human empires would have us believe. We do not have to weep in the ruins of our cities. Advent has promised us that help is on the way, and Christmas gives us the Good News that the redeemer has come, and in the most unlikely circumstances.

That’s the way redemption works—not in the ways we would expect, but in surprising ways that take us where we could not dream of going, and sometimes faster than we would expect. If we could travel back in time to tell the people of 1985 that the Soviet Union would soon crumble and South Africa would be free of white rule, the people of 1985 would think we were insane. If we could travel back to the first century of the Roman empire to tell of what the followers of Jesus would accomplish, those people would laugh at us—if they even knew who Jesus was.

In a Monday essay in The Washington Post, Madeleine Albright sums Havel this way: “he declared himself neither an optimist (‘because I am not sure everything ends well,’) nor a pessimist (‘because I am not sure everything ends badly’) but, instead, ‘a realist who carries hope, and hope is the belief that freedom and justice have meaning . . . and that liberty is always worth the trouble.’”

Christians, too, believe that freedom and justice have meaning and that liberty is always worth the trouble. And if we believe in the Good News that surrounds us at Christmas, we can be wild-eyed optimists. We know that things will end well; we have a multitude of promises and plenty of evidence that God will keep those promises of liberty for the captives.

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