When the Lord washes away / the filth of the daughters of Zion, / And purges Jerusalem’s blood from her midst / with a blast of judgment, a searing blast, / Then will the Lord create, / over the whole site of Mount Zion / and over her place of assembly, / A smoking cloud by day / and a light of flaming fire by night.Isaiah 4:4-5
The centurion said in reply, “Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed. For I too am a person subject to authority, with soldiers subject to me. And I say to one, ‘Go,’ and he goes; and to another, ‘Come here,’ and he comes; and to my slave, ‘Do this,’ and he does it.” When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Amen, I say to you, in no one in Israel have I found such faith.Matthew 8:8-10
On this first weekday of Advent, we pray that when the Lord comes and knocks, we shall be found “watchful in prayer.” To be in prayer is to be awake and watchful in a way far more truly and distinctively human than the way we are present to life much of the time. In today’s gospel Jesus exclaims to his disciples that in no person in Israel has he found the faith that the centurion manifests. For what Jesus experiences among his own people is what he well may experience among his church today when he comes. He may find on all sides of the ideological divide a smugness and self-satisfaction that is not watchful in prayer but rather myopic in its self-justification and self-satisfaction.
The religious “world” in which at least I move is threatened constantly by the spirit of embourgeoisement. Perhaps this has always been true, but we seem to constantly be subject to the temptation to reduce God to the size of our own comfort and entitlement. Instead of seeing ourselves in the perspective of the power and majesty of God, we reduce God to the size of our inverted awe of our own power and comfort. The faith of the centurion is manifest in his recognition of his place in relationship to Jesus, the Lord of life. “I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof.” The centurion recognizes that Jesus is not to be domesticated on his terms.
When we were children, perhaps the most serious charge that our parents would make against us was that we were “too big for our britches.” It was among the most deflating of corrections that we would receive. The problem with being too big for our britches is that it gives us a perspective on the world which sees persons, events, and things only in terms of how they can support or inflate ourselves. Anyone or anything that does not support our inflated sense of self is a problem to be solved or eliminated.
The centurion recognizes who he is before the Divine Master because he knows from his own experience that others willingly defer to his superior rank or position. What he doesn’t do is take that rank and position and perceive his place in the universe in light of it. As his soldiers and his slaves are subject to him, so he is subject to God’s will in Jesus.
In our culture far too often, to be “religious” has little to do with real faith and much more to do with just another means of confirming one’s own pride form. So often I fear that when I hear the claims to victimhood of “Christians” in our own country, I am actually hearing a demand to be superior. There is, for example, the incessant demand that those of other traditions acknowledge Christian celebrations and morality as normative, with no reciprocal responsibility to practice and celebrate in accord with the beliefs of others. The centurion is socially superior to Jesus, and yet he recognizes his lesser place in regard to the greater authority of Jesus.
The readings of the prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures are especially potent in our time. For we live, as they often did, in a time of great religious and social upheaval. We are living in a time of transition in which the religious and cultural hegemony of the north and west is coming to an end. It may be for both church and state a time of judgment akin to what Isaiah describes: “. . . a blast of judgment, a searing blast.” Yesterday in the Washington Post there was a story showing some story cloths that were made by women in Nepal, Ecuador, and Congo who had been severely traumatized. What is striking about the cloths is that they manifest at once the horror of the unspeakable events but are also, at the same time, beautiful.
Often when we speak of judgment in the religious sense, we think of it as punishment. But it is rather encounter with the truth. Adrian van Kaam says that we must come “to know the lesson that every pain conceals.” For these women, the truth was so painful it was literally unspeakable. And yet, they were able without words to illustrate the horror but also a beauty in their subjective bearing with the pain and suffering. This is not a cover of the pain or a repression of its ugly truth, but rather a manifestation of spirit that cannot be violated or destroyed, of a truth that is deeper than whatever we inflict on each other.
To have faith is to be prayerfully aware and open to judgment. It is to wait on the lesson that every pain conceals. One of the reasons that the scriptures tell us that the coming of the Lord and judgment catch us unawares is that we spend a lot of energy in repressing the truth and in reducing God to our size. We are very good at eliminating from awareness information that we find disturbing. Over and over again, we see in our country the refusal of people in “high places” to accept responsibility for their failures. From the financial crisis of 2008 to the horrors of unnecessary wars and the chaos that has ensued, no one is held accountable. As we wait for the Lord’s coming this Advent, we must be very counter-cultural. We must recognize that the Lord comes in judgment, with the demand that we stop fooling ourselves and attend responsibly to the truth of things. It is the truth, reality that will teach and form us. It is to know our place vis-a-vis God’s creation and God’s coming. It is the truth, in its beauty and its pain, that will teach us what we need to know.
As Advent begins, we can resolve to cease using God to make ourselves comfortable. Of course, God is loving. But “love in action,” as Dostoevsky says, “is a harsh and dreadful thing compared to love in dreams.” For the guiding presence of the Lord to return as cloud by day and fire by night, there must first come the judgment: “When the Lord washes away/ the filth of the daughters of Zion, / And purges Jerusalem’s blood from her midst / with a blast of judgment, a searing blast.” Be it the state of our world, our church, our nation, or our relationships to each other, we must subject ourselves to the judgment of God, to the truth to which we are responsible. The constant, harsh, and dreadful truth is that we are always called to change. Without constant change and purification, we are devoting ourselves to the idols of our own comfort and self-satisfaction, rather than the “authority” of God.
One of the koans in the Blue Cliff Record (number 27 out of 100) quotes a monk asking the master Yun Men, “How is it when the tree withers and the leaves fall?” . . . The classical answer, the one given by Yun Men, a master so irascible that he forbade his disciples to record any of his notoriously abstruse sayings (forcing them to surreptitiously write them down on a paper robe) was: “Body exposed in the golden wind.” Even before I tried to grapple with what Yun Men was saying, I loved his response. Something about it made me happy, this body exposed in a golden wind. I imagined myself on a beach, the sun-drenched air gusting off the water, feeling safe, warm, and connected even while I lay there alone. With the leaves falling, without the usual array of comforts and consolations, in the depths of my solitude, was an unknown boundless presence: a golden wind enveloping my uncovered form.Mark Epstein. The Trauma of Everyday Life, pp. 207-8