What, Then, Will This Child Be?

Today the Catholic Church celebrates the Nativity of John the Baptist.

John was born of a woman too old to bear children. The news of Elizabeth’s pregnancy was so unbelievable to Zechariah that he was struck dumb. We hear in today’s Gospel from Luke that only at John’s birth, when Zechariah writes that the baby will be named John was his mouth opened. All who were present were deeply affected, wondering “What, then, will this child be?”

The Gospel of the Evangelist John answers their question:

A man named John was sent from God. He came for testimony, to testify to the light, so that all might believe through him. He was not the light, but came to testify to the light. The true light, which enlightens everyone, was coming into the world. (1:6-9)

When the Jews from Jerusalem sent priests and Levites [to him] to ask him, “Who are you?” he admitted and did not deny it, but admitted, “I am not the Messiah.” So they asked him, “What are you then? Are you Elijah?” And he said, “I am not.” “Are you the Prophet?” He answered, “No.” So they said to him, “Who are you, so we can give an answer to those who sent us? What do you have to say for yourself?” He said: “I am ‘the voice of one crying out in the desert,“Make straight the way of the Lord,”’ as Isaiah the prophet said.” (1:19-23)

John has always been one of my heroes, a great model for us, and I often pray to be like him. No, not the dress in camel hair and eat locusts for my meals as Mattew’s Gospel suggested John did. I confess that does not much appeal to me. But to remember that my job always is to testify to the light. To remember that what I do is never about me, but about God. And to have John’s boldness in testifying to the truth. He is a good model for all of us who claim discipleship in Christ.

Blessings on this feast of the Nativity of John.

Being Prophets in Today’s World

This past Wednesday I had the reflection spot at our Weekly Manna gathering and I spoke on a topic I’ve written on and spoken about before: our call to be prophets and to (in John Neafsey’s words) cultivate our capacity for prophetic imagination.

I used one of my great heroes, Oscar Romero, as my starting point and ending point. Romero was someone who possessed a deep understanding that prophets are not special people who are different from the rest of us, but rather that the people of God “are a prophetic people” by virtue of the presence of God’s spirit within us.

Romero also illustrates the painful reality that there is a cost to living a prophetic life. Shane Claiborne (another of my heroes) observes wryly that “prophets usually get killed,” and Romero was assassinated for speaking the truth to power.

In my talk I spoke about what it means to be a prophet and to possess a prophetic imagination…and about what that means in our world today.

You can access a recording of my Weekly Manna talk here or stream it from the icon below. (The podcast runs for 13:30.)

Oscar Romero: Martyr, Friend to the Poor, Prophet of Justice

In 1977, Oscar Romero was appointed Archbishop of El Salvador an appointment that pleased the government of that country, but disappointed many priests in El Salvador, especially those openly aligned with Marxism. Romero was somewhat conservative and generally was not a rock the boat kind of guy.

But something happened to change Romero. Only a few months after he became Archbishop, a progressive Jesuit priest named Rutilio Grande, who was a personal friend of Romero and who had been creating self-reliance groups among the poor, was assassinated. His death had a profound impact on Romero, who later stated, “When I looked at Rutilio lying there dead I thought, ‘If they have killed him for doing what he did, then I too have to walk the same path.'” Romero asked the government to investigate the death of his friend, but they ignored his request.

From that point on, Romero was a changed man. Rutilio’s death helped Romero grow into his role as a voice for the voiceless. He became a strong voice against the violence and injustice that was being perpetrated on the people of El Salvador.

In one of his sermons, Romero warned, “If you live out a Christianity that is good but that is not sufficient for our times, that doesn’t denounce injustice, that doesn’t proclaim the kingdom of God courageously, that doesn’t reject the sins humankind commits, that consents to the sins of certain classes so as to be accepted by those classes, then you are not doing your duty, you are sinning, you are betraying your mission. The church was put here to convert humankind, not to tell people that everything that they do is all right; and, because of that, naturally, it irritates people. Everything that corrects us irritates us.”

As Romero recognized, “it is easier to preach lies, to conform to the situation so as not to lost your advantages, so that you always have friends that flatter you, so that you have power.” Nonetheless we are called to speak the truth, even when doing so means personal loss. That takes enormous courage and enormous faith, of which Romero is a powerful model.

That kind of courage has consequences. On March 24, 1980, Romeo presided at a special evening mass. That evening he proclaimed from the Gospel of John, “Unless a grain of wheat falls to the earth and dies, it remains only a grain. But if it dies, it bears much fruit.” As he concluded his sermon, which preached the need to give one’s life for others as Christ did, he was shot in the heart and died almost immediately.

Romero was tireless in his call for solidarity with the poor and oppressed, a voice for those who had no voice. He was strident in his denunciation of violence and called for a culture of peace and an end to the killings that were destroying his country.

On this anniversary of his assassination, we remember Oscar Romero, martyr, friend to the poor and prophet of justice.

Being Prophets, Not Just Protesters

I’m guest blogger today over at the Center for FaithJustice blog. Given an invitation to write about anything having to so with faith, justice or service, I chose to write about our call to be prophets and about the distinction between being a prophet and merely being a protester.

Here is an excerpt of my post.

Prophets have the ability to look beyond the world as it is and to see what it could be. John Neafsy (in A Sacred Voice is Calling) speaks of a prophetic imagination as one that enables us “to look beyond the world as it is to the world as is could be or should be” – to imagine what God’s kingdom on earth could look like.

That means, by definition, that prophets challenge the patterns of the world in which we live, which means something more than simply criticizing and tearing down. …

[P]rotesters do a good job of standing on the sidelines pointing out the problems, of telling us what is wrong. But they tend not to offer alternatives or solutions.

Pointing out what is wrong is not all that hard. When I was a high school debater, it didn’t take me long to realize that debating the negative side was always easier than debating the affirmative side. It is always easier to tear down than to build up.

That doesn’t mean protest is not useful. The Occupy Wall Street movement, for example, has valuably raised consciousness along several lines, notwithstanding criticism that it lacks a concrete game plan. We need people who point to what is wrong. But protest alone is never enough.

What the world needs – desperately – is people who can point the way to a new reality, to point us toward another future.

That is our call as Christians – to be prophets, not just protesters. Our call is not merely to stand out in the square railing against the world as it exists, but to transform the world into the kingdom of God.

You can read the entirety of my post on the Center for FaithJustice blog here. My invitation is that you sit with the question: am I a prophet or a protester? As I say in the post, my guess is that we are all, at least sometimes, protesters. That means it would be a worthwhile exercise to reflect on the question: in those times when I’ve been a protester, how might I have taken the next step and been a prophet? How do I move from the easier task to the harder one?

Participating in the Priestly, Prophetic and Kingly Mission of Christ

I spent the past two days at a seminar on Woman in the Church and in the World, sponsored by the Siena Symposium for Women, Family, and Culture. The seminar included some wonderful sessions on the problems confronting women, the Marian Dimension of the Church, the family as “domestic Church,” the mission of the laity, among others.

Near the end of the first day, we talked about an important subject not unique to women – the role of the laity. We looked at some beautiful language in Pope John Paul II’s Apostolic Exhortation, Christifideles Laici (The Vocation and Mission of the Lay Faithful in the Church and the World) addressing a subject we don’t often think about: “the priestly, prophetic and kingly dignity of the entire People of God.”

When we receive the sacrament of Baptism, we are anointed with oil as a sign that we are joined to Christ and share in his threefold mission as prophet, priest, and king. One of the aims of Christifideles Laici is to remind us of this charge, to encourage us to take seriously our role in this mission.

What does it mean for us to share in the priestly, prophetic and kingly mission of Christ? (Do we even think about that question?)

To be a prophet in the Christian sense means to “accept the Gospel in faith and to proclaim it in word and deed.”

To participate in the kingly mission means to “seek to overcome in [ourselves] the kingdom of sin.” Someone suggested in our discussion that for us to act kingly means for us to exercise sovereignty over ourself to that we may then make a gift of ourself to others.

To share in Jesus priestly mission, which for Jesus meant sacrificing himself on the cross, means for us to let all of our activities become spiritual sacrifices, that is, to carry out all of our deeds in the Spirit and with love.

It is a tall order. But that is what we are called to by our baptism.

Seeing Shane

I have long been a fan of Shane Claiborne. I thought the two books of his that I have read were terrific and I have watched various videos of him that have increased my admiration of him.

Last night, for the first time, I heard him speak in person. Through a Facebook announcement, I learned that he would be speaking at a high school in the area. So I attended with my friends Doug and Marcia. Happily so: I haven’t been as deeply arrested by a speaker since the first time I heard Helen Prejean speak.

Shane is even more powerful in person than in writing or on a video. His faith, his integrity and his love are palpable with every word. And he challenges those who listen to him. Really, really challenges, which is, after all, what prophets do. Speaking of the Old Testament prophets, Shane characterized them as crazy people who call us back to who we are meant to be. And that is exactly what he does.

His claim is, at one level, a very simple one, the claim that we are invited as Christians to challenge the patterns of the world in which we live – to interrupt the patterns of the world with prophetic imagination. And that means having a different approach to suffering, a different approach to money and and a different approach to violence than that of the secular world. It is an approach that requires us to recognize that, as he put it, maybe God has a different dream than the American dream.

As to suffering: The world teaches us to run away from suffering as fast as we can, while the core of our Gospel is a God who moves into suffering – who is born into a place from which nothing good is said to come and who suffers what we suffer until he is killed. That raises for us the question: how do I take who I am and connect with the suffering of the world.

Money is a hard one for us; many of us who have no difficulty citing scripture to justify various things step back from things like the command to sell all we have and give it to the poor or the instruction not to store up treasures but to depend on our heavenly father. While the world teaches us to accumulate more, our challenge is to learn how to live with less and to “hold lightly” those things we have.

And in a world riddled in violence, our invitation is to find ways to disarm and interrupt that violence, something Jesus was so good at. I was almost in tears listening to Shane talk about his two visits to Iraq and his meetings with the people there and to his reports of discussions with returning servicemen about the horrors they experienced. Simply put, he said that it is impossible to reconcile the sword and the cross and that when Jesus disarmed Peter in the Garden, he disarmed every Christian. The challenge for us is to find imaginative ways to stop violence without ourselves committing violence, in our local communities (and he told some great stories about diffusing violent situations in his Philly neighborhood) and in our world.

Let me end with two lines of his that I copied down (with the broken pen Marcia gave me) that I think are good lines to reflect on for all of us who seek to follow Jesus’ command in the world:

Our faith is spread best not by force, but by fascination.

We are called to makes disciples, not believers.

Priest, Prophet and King

Last night I read the homily given by Archbishop Oscar Romero during a Chrism Mass on Holy Thursday in 1977, which spoke about the way in which the day’s celebration reminds us of the great works of the Holy Spirit. One of the works of the Holy Spirit Romero highlighted was the transmission of the “unique priesthood of Christ, who is also king and prophet” to those who have been baptized, a transmission that “enables them to be a priestly, royal and prophetic people.”

We don’t tend to remember and don’t always take seriously the idea that when we were baptized, we received an anointing with chrism as “a visible representation of the fact that this child of the flesh was incorporated into the Church, into the People of God, into this priestly, royal and prophetic people.” Yet it is something that is important to remember. Our anointing as priest, prophet and king means that each one of us – not only those who have been ordained or who occupy some other special position in the church – has a mission. As Romero put it, we lay people are “neither religious nor priests of the altar but [we] are priests in the world, prophets in the world, and royalty who ought to work so that the Kingdom of God reigns in society, in its structures and in the world.” Elucidating on what that means, Romero preached

You have to proclaim, like the prophets, like the prophetic people anointed by the Spirit that anointed Jesus, yes you have to announce the marvelous deeds of God in the world, you have to encourage the good that is done in the world and emphatically denounce the evil that is done in the world.

We are the Church. It is fine to look to the bishops and priests to do their part, but by our baptism “we are not simply spectator’s of the Church’s activity.” We are priests, prophets and kings and we have a mission to accomplish, “a royal mission that makes God dominant above all other things that exist in the world.”

He Preached Good News to the People

Today’s Gospel from St. Luke, which tells of John the Baptist preaching to the crowds, ends with the line, “Exhorting them in many other ways, he preached good news to the people.”

I’m wondering how many of John’s hearers would have characterized what he said to them as “good news.” The exhortations reported in the Gospel include telling the crowds: “Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. And whoever has food should do likewise.” And telling the tax collectors, “Stop collecting mroe than what is prescribed.” And telling the soldiers, “Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages.”

I’m guessing that not everyone who heard these words were all that pleased with them. And lest you shake your head about “those silly people back then,” there are plenty of us sitting around with extra cloaks in our closets and extra food in our pantries while many have no warm coats and nothing to eat. And plenty behaving in ways John warned the tax collectors and the soldiers against.

The “good news” is not always words that are easy to hear…”good” is not always either easy or pleasant. And so we all need Johns in our midst, prophets who challenge us, who call us to something more. And, as we are all called to preach the good news, we are all called to be a prophetic voice to others.

Oscar Romero and Prophetic Preaching

This weekend I watched Romero, the 1989 film starring Raul Julia that gives a picture of the life of Oscar Romero from the time he was named Archbishop of El Salvador to his assassination on March 24, 1980. It is not an easy film to watch; it is difficult not to feel a sense of hopelessness at the situation of the poor of that country fighting against a corrupt power structure that holds all the cards, so to speak.

Although Romero had to grow into his role as a voice for the voiceless, he became a strong voice against the violence and injustice that was being perpetrated on the people of El Salvador. His message continues to be one that we need to hear, for the world needs the prophetic voice of love and Christ no less today than it did thirty years ago.

In one of his sermons, Romero warned,

If you live out a Christianity that is good but that is not sufficient for our times, that doesn’t denounce injustice, that doesn’t proclaim the kingdom of God courageously, that doesn’t reject the sins humankind commits, that consents to the sins of certain classes so as to be accepted by those classes, then you are not doing your duty, you are sinning, you are betraying your mission. The church was put here to convert humankind, not to tell people that everything that they do is all right; and, because of that, naturally, it irritates people. Everything that corrects us irritates us.

As Romero recognized, “it is easier to preach lies, to conform to the situation so as not to lost your advantages, so that you always have friends that flatter you, so that you have power.” Nonetheless we are called to speak the truth, even when doing so means personal loss. That takes enormous courage and enormous faith. Romero is a powerful model of that courage and faith.

Prophetic Imagination

“Some men see things are they are and say, ‘why?’…I dream things that never were and say, ‘why not?'” I always associate this quote with Robert Kennedy, although he took it from George Bernard Shaw. It is a quote that has stayed with me from the time I first heard it as a child and I think it helps us understand what it means to possess a prophetic imagination.

A prophet has the ability to look beyond the world as it is and to see what it could be, to see what the world could look like if God’s dream for the world became a reality.

In his book, A Sacred Voice is Calling, which I mentioned in a post the other day, John Neafsey talks about the prophetic imagination. He reminds us that the prophet is not someone who simply sits back conjuring up unrealisitic and utopian dreams of a better tomorrow and is not merely an “angry social critic.” Instead, a prophet calls people to an awareness of what should not be so in the world as it is and brings hope that there is a way out, that there is a way to what could be. Quoting William Lynch, Neafsey says talks about hope as “imagining the possible.”

When we hear the word prophet, we tend to think of the Isaiah’s of old. People who were special, set apart from others. But perhaps the most important reminder Neafsey gives is that “each of us, in our own way, is called to cultivate our capacity for prophetic imagination, to find our own way of making the Dream of God a reality.” And that is something that takes work. Sitting back and daydreaming is easy. Standing back and criticizing the way things are is easy. Neither of those takes a whole lot of effort. But to have the vision to see beyond what is, and the courage to help bring the world there, is a lot more challenging. And that challenging work is what we are all called to.