The deaf, that day,/ will hear the words of a book/ and, after shadow and darkness,/ the eyes of the blind will see.
But the lowly will rejoice in Yahweh even more/ and the poorest exult in the Holy One of Israel. . . .
Isaiah 20: 18-9
The other day on the way to work, I was listening to the Diane Rehm show on public radio. The discussion was about how journalism should respond to the phenomenon of what has come to be called “fake news.” “Fake news” is what happens when a false story or rumor is reported and then becomes endlessly repeated on social media. This past election has presented American journalism with a great quandary. How are they to respond when candidates or public officials consistently repeat falsehoods as true? Is merely presenting opposing viewpoints an adequate means of informing an electorate?
One of the participants in the conversation made a point that seemed to perfectly illustrate the problem. She said that no one could not state what was a fact because everybody “had their own facts.” As I listened to what seemed like a rather hopeless cacophony in reaction to her astounding statement, I thought about how long such a totally relativistic point of view had been in the making in our culture. For my entire lifetime there has been a strain within American egalitarianism that has maintained that what free speech means is the recognition that every personal opinion has an equal claim on the truth. “I have a right to my opinion” has often been a substitute for the hard work of study, investigation, and research, for the uncovering, as best as possible, of the relative truth of an assertion.
The emergence of 24 hour news stations and now of social media has today given a platform for every individual to disseminate her or his opinion as if it represents the truth of the matter. It is something of a Tower of Babel phenomenon multiplied by a factor of 7.3 billion, where now each individual is speaking her or his own language. In the United States, many if not most of us no longer seek out the news to be informed, but rather to find support for our own opinions or particular versions of the truth. The result of this is a breakdown in our ability to communicate with and to understand each other.
The great wisdom traditions of humanity offer a very different perspective. They say that to come to know God, to glimpse something of the truth, and to be healed, we must first know that we are blind and deaf. As Isaiah foretells, in the time of the Lord’s coming it is the deaf who will hear the words of a book and the eyes of the blind that will see. It is the lowly who will rejoice and the poor who will exult. If this is, in fact, true, then is it not the task of the “evangelizer” to help those who think they see to know they are blind, those who think they hear to know they are deaf, those who think they are exalted (the winners) to recognize that they are lowly and those who are taken with their own riches to recognize their poverty? The church is not to add to the noise created by false certitudes, but it is rather to call us into a space of silent doubt about what we each hold arrogantly to be the truth.
The words of the gospel are superfluous for those who have already heard it all. The vision and holiness of God is obscure for those whose focus is on the gods of their own creation. The joy and exultation that comes from the knowledge of one’s own emptiness and that everything including our own life is a gift from God escapes those who are full of their own self-importance. For a church and a people called to bring the word of God and the love of Christ to others, we must, enter the lives of those around us, including, and perhaps especially, those who are most disinterested in the call to self-recognition and repentance that is at the heart of the gospel. We must be a sign of contradiction to all absolute opinion and taken-for-granted assumptions. We must invite others into the darkness and the silence in which a word that transcends all of our noise can be heard.
It is through your life of gospel witness
lived in community with others
that God desires to manifest
care and compassionate love
to those who are separated and estranged,
not only from their neighbors,
but also from their own uniqueness;
to those who suffer
from want, neglect, and injustice:
the poor, the weak, and the oppressed
of this world.
If the deaf are to hear the word of a book and the eyes of the blind are to see, then someone must come close to people in their deafness and blindness. In today’s gospel, Jesus heals the blind men by touching their eyes. We are called to touch those who, as the Fundamental Principles say, are “separated and estranged . . . from their own uniqueness.”
In the United States we have just completed an election that has both revealed and exacerbated our divisions. For many of us, including those of us who feel called in faith, hope, and love, to serve others, it is difficult to even listen to, let alone come close to, those on the “other side” of our cultural and political divide. The growing fear and anger among us as a people is both palpable and frightening. The blindness we can experience in the face of those espousing certain political positions, for example, can be a blind rage. Such persons may well seem to us to be the last persons we could ever move towards, and touch, and care for. It is difficult for us to see those on the “other side” of our cultural and political divide as the “poor and marginalized” whom we are called to be with and for.
The words of Isaiah this Advent seem to have a very special meaning for a people who are riven by mistrust, fear, and anger. If the promise of the prophet is real, how will we come to gain sight and hearing, to know joy and exultation? We must work, as Pope Francis declares, to ‘build bridges” toward and “to put our life on the line” for those who disagree with us and who even dislike us. When the basic stance we have toward each other is aggressive, when we don’t speak with but rather yell at each other, it takes real courage “to touch the suffering flesh of Christ” in those who have no sense of their own suffering. The voice of the Lord is a very different voice from those that blare at us on a daily basis. If we are to develop the ears to hear it once again, we must do that together, by breaking through the fear and daring to care for one another despite our resistances to doing so.
An evangelizing community gets involved by word and deed in people’s daily lives; it bridges distances, it is willing to abase itself if necessary, and it embraces human life, touching the suffering flesh of Christ in others. Evangelizers thus take on the “smell of the sheep” and the sheep are willing to hear their voice. An evangelizing community is also supportive, standing by people at every step of the way, no matter how difficult or lengthy this may prove to be. It is familiar with patient expectation and apostolic endurance. Evangelization consists mostly of patience and disregard for constraints of time. Faithful to the Lord’s gift, it also bears fruit. An evangelizing community is always concerned with fruit, because the Lord wants her to be fruitful. It cares for the grain and does not grow impatient at the weeds. The sower, when he sees weeds sprouting among the grain does not grumble or overreact. He or she finds a way to let the word take flesh in a particular situation and bear fruits of new life, however imperfect or incomplete these may appear. The disciple is ready to put his or her whole life on the line, even to accepting martyrdom, in bearing witness to Jesus Christ, yet the goal is not to make enemies but to see God’s word accepted and its capacity for liberation and renewal revealed. Finally an evangelizing community is filled with joy; it knows how to rejoice always. It celebrates every small victory, every step forward in the work of evangelization.
Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, 24