Sunday, November 28, 2010

Fr. Matthias Neuman's Homily for the 1st Sunday in Advent

Readings: Is 2:1-5; Rms 13:11-14; Math 24:37-44

The program that I am currently listening to when I’m driving in my car is one from the Teaching Company entitled, "Utopia and Terror in the 20th Century." This course describes the 20th century, the one that most of us have lived the majority of our years in, as the most bloody and violent in human history. It is a century filled with wars, genocide, ethnic cleansing, and dictatorial government persecutions that accounted for around 220 million violent deaths. The 20th century saw more violent deaths than the previous 19 centuries combined. What’s really so frightening about all this is that most of these deaths were caused by individuals who were in pursuit of creating an ideal society, a utopia on earth. Sadly, these perpetrators also believed that to accomplish this ideal society, it was necessary to use, at least temporarily, terror, including executions, as a method to this end (an idea born during the French Revolution). Most of the people who pursued this combination of utopia and terror were individuals who did not believe in God. Instead, they wanted to create a secular ideal utopia fashioned in their own image (National Socialism, Communism, etc.).

How different from that is the prophecy of Isaiah, which we heard in the first reading this morning. Isaiah also has a vision of an ideal society, a utopia, where "a nation shall not raise the sword against another." But his vision is very definitely based upon a belief in a God, who shall give us instruction on how to live: "he will instruct us that we may walk in his paths." In the passage in Isaiah right before this one (a passage we didn’t hear) the prophet spells out what those instructions from the Lord God are: "Wash yourselves, make yourselves clean...cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." (1:16-17) It is precisely a society that earnestly seeks to care for the weakest among its own that is one that will come to know true peace. But this needs to be the attitude of all in society, from the leaders to the least: "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow." From all in society, not just volunteers.

This first Sunday of Advent takes us back to the very beginnings of our Christian faith as it is rooted in the moral monotheism of ancient Judaism. Many scholars and writers have often asserted that the religious genius of Judaism was its belief in and proclamation of a moral monotheism: that there is only One God and that God requires moral actions of justice and love from the human beings He creates. If we believe in this one and only God who calls us to "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow," then we are not free to create our own ideal human society in our image. Way back when I was a theology student, I remember one of the adages spoken often by my Old Testament professors: "Before you can be a Christian, you have to first be a Yahwist." That is, one who believes in the One Lord God of Israel and his moral commands to us.

Living in a religion like the Catholic faith in the 21st century can be a very complicated process. There are so many aspects and areas in the Catholic faith that we can sometimes easily get lost or be overwhelmed by trivial issues. (And there are plenty of trivial issues to sidetrack us.) There are always times when we need to clear the deck and get back to basics. Sometimes a crisis will force us to that and we have no other options. There’s also the possibility that we can to it on our own and willingly undertake a "back to the basics" look at our faith. This Advent season would be a good time for that. And one of the best places to begin would be the prophet Isaiah and his moral monotheism. During the Advent season, we might reflect on these words again and again: "There is no other God besides me, a righteous God and a Savior; there is no one besides me. Turn to me and be saved, all the ends of the earth! For I am God and there is no other." (45:21-22) And what does this one God say to us: "seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan and plead for the widow."

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