Speaking of missed opportunities, I wonder how many homilists failed to see the message running through today’s scripture readings for the Feast of the Assumption. It is hard to see how we can preach about Mary and omit significant parts of her great hymn—the Magnificat.
Richard Rohr says that, when we lost the mystical element of our faith, we turned to pietism. Religion came to focus on a personal relationship between the person and God. In Catholicism, it was cast as having to save one’s soul. Pietism focuses on personal practice designed to assure one’s own salvation. This too is the thrust of much evangelical faith—have you given your life to Jesus?
Merton does a wonderful analysis of cargo cult. The natives in the South Pacific saw that the colonizers got good things from afar. In their primitive way, they conjectured that ancestors from far across the sea sent them cargo—good things that made life better. How did the colonizers get cargo? They must have secrets. Some natives thought that the flowers in gardens and vases in houses were what brought cargo. The natives said, “If we plant flowers, we will get cargo.” They even built runways and held vigils awaiting the arrival of the cargo planes. Cultic practices the natives developed to get cargo became a threat to the colonizers. Natives could no longer have flowers. In America, fear of cargo seeking activities led to the banning of the Native American ghost dances. If natives get cargo, they might become unruly.
I see much of pietistic religious practice as cargo cult. If I/we do enough of this that or the other religious practice or ritual, I/we will get cargo—good gifts from God. The problem is that God does not operate subject to cargo cult practices. God is gratuitous and bestows blessings on us just because God has to be God. Don’t misunderstand me, personal holiness and striving for holiness is commendable; however, our faith efforts must go beyond, must serve the common good not just through charity but also through justice. We are called to let the waters of justice roll down like a mighty river = we are called to reestablish right order and right relationships based on Gospel values, not party politic values.
Mysticism is also a very personal expression of faith but it differs from pietism. Merton says that mysticism is grounded on the oneness of all creation and all creatures. Julian of Norwich, a great mystic spoke of “oneing.” Thus, mysticism at its best, has a communal dimension. It speaks of personal experience plus solidarity with God, other people and all of creation, and the common good. Rahner said that the Christian of the 21st Century will be mystical or will not be at all.
I am not sure that I any longer know what socialism is because it is so bantered about these days. I do know that the early Christian communities were based on solidarity and the common good. Christians in the early centuries, before Constantine co-opted Christianity, proclaimed the Gospel. Like Jesus, they stood over against empire. Luke’s “The Gospel of Jesus Christ” is a direct affront to the power and prestige of the Roman emperor. Only emperors proclaimed good news. Now here is a sect within Judaism—the Jesus Movement—that is challenging the values of the Roman empire. Jesus challenged those values when he rode into Jerusalem on a donkey instead of a stallion. Jesus challenged the empire when he carried a cross instead of a sword.
Back to today’s scripture readings. The first reading is about Mary. It is also about the birth of a son (the Messiah) who will challenge empire. Christians who think that Revelation is a book of future predictions miss the point of this apocalyptic literature. Revelation is a coded challenge to the Roman empire. The empire is the dragon, the beast.
In the epistle, Paul says:
For just as in Adam all die,
so too in Christ shall all be brought to life,
but each one in proper order:
Christ the firstfruits;
then, at his coming, those who belong to Christ;
then comes the end,
when he hands over the Kingdom to his God and Father,
when he has destroyed every sovereignty
and every authority and power.
For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet.
Again, Christians, like Jesus the Christ, are to challenge the values of empire by proclaiming Gospel values—peace, justice, mercy, love and forgiveness. Until the powers and principalities are overcome, the Kingdom of God will not become a total reality. Right now the Kingdom is groaning and struggling toward the fulfillment promised by Jesus.
Finally, we have the Magnificat. The visiting priest recited some of the Magnificat at the end of a long homily; however, he left out the parts in bold below:
My soul proclaims the greatness of the Lord;
my spirit rejoices in God my Savior
for he has looked with favor on his lowly servant.
From this day all generations will call me blessed:
the Almighty has done great things for me
and holy is his Name.
He has mercy on those who fear him
in every generation.
He has shown the strength of his arm,
and has scattered the proud in their conceit.
He has cast down the mighty from their thrones,
and has lifted up the lowly.
He has filled the hungry with good things,
and the rich he has sent away empty.
He has come to the help of his servant Israel
for he has remembered his promise of mercy,
the promise he made to our fathers,
to Abraham and his children forever.
Hmm. Are Mary’s words too threatening? Probably but we cannot slide them under the rug and go on as if she never said them. The Magnificat and Jesus inaugural sermon—I have come to set captives free, to liberate the oppressed, to give sight to the blind, to proclaim a year of jubilee (a new economic order)—call us to action.
A few weeks ago a group from our church traveled to the Trinity Table soup kitchen in Atlanta and fed over 300 people. We did a great act of charity. We temporarily alleviated the human suffering of homelessness and hunger. We put a band aid on a gaping social wound in our world and society. The Gospel challenges us to do more, to seek justice—changing the structures which contribute to homelessness and hunger. How do our economic policies contribute to the deaths of 30,000 children per day around the world due to preventable causes such a tainted water? How do our domestic economic policies contribute to foreclosures and repossessions while the rich get richer? How do our “fair” trade agreements impoverish countless millions around the world? How do our wars for oil and other resources result in countless deaths which we benignly call “collateral damage?”
We could give many more examples. The bottom line is simple—we have a responsibility to speak out, to speak truth to power. We have a responsibility to look beyond our own comfort zones (which lead to the exploitation of many around the world) and to show the strength of God’s mighty arm of justice.