Sunday, December 03, 2006

The Reversals of Luke

First Sunday of Advent
Jeremiah 33:14-16
Psalm 25:4-5, 8-9, 10, 14
1 Thessalonians 3:12-4:2
Luke 21:25-28, 35-36

When I was just a postulant, the newest of the new kids, I took a course on Luke/Acts over at St. Meinrad. A great class, though it didn't seem it when I first walked in — me, with virtually no theology background, in what ended up being a seminar consisting primarily of fifth-year seminarians, those on the cusp of being ordained. While I felt quite in over my head, once I got my feet under me I loved the class, and ended up probably learning tons more than if I were in a class on my level.

One of the big things I remember being so greatly emphasized as we worked our way through the scripture texts, and particularly the gospel, was just how much Luke loves reversals. Things are never what they seem; there's always a trick ending. I'm sure a good part of that is simply a consequence to such a strong emphasis on the acceptance of outcasts — in showing that Jesus came for the sinners and outcasts, lepers and prostitutes, women and poverty-stricken, there's no way to avoid a seeming "reversal of fortune."

So ... Luke's Jesus tells a story about some guy getting beaten up and left on the side of the road, and, instead of the nice leader-type people, it's only the most vile and despicable Samaritan who helps him – and thus is held up by Jesus as the model to follow. Luke's Jesus tells another story about the kid who basically says to his dad: "I don't feel like waiting for you to die, so can I just pretend you're dead and get my stuff now?" But, instead of getting mad at the kid when he comes crawling home, the dad practically makes him Head of the Household! Needless to say, the kid's brother gets more-than-slightly annoyed.

Even the Magnificat, the Canticle of Mary sung nightly by all who pray the Liturgy of the Hours, the prayer of the church ... the hungry are filled, the rich go away empty; rulers will be thrown from their thrones, while the lowly are lifted high. Luke really likes that whole "Last shall be first" kind of idea!

And then we have these readings for today, this first Sunday of Advent, Cycle C. As I read these readings over yesterday, I had the thought that I never realized that this first day of Advent was so "Last Day" focused (which I later discovered isn't always the case – just every three years). But, when you think about it ... Year C in the Catholic calendar uses texts primarily drawn from Luke's gospel. So, I suppose it only makes sense that we begin our year by looking towards the end — and not just the end of the year, but the end times.
However, when this day's passages are read in the context of being the first day of Advent, this time of awaiting the earthly arrival of the Lord Jesus Christ, the reversals take on an additional level of meaning. The first reading from Jeremiah is pretty straight-forward; in fact, he's got the "sprouting of a shoot" that always makes me think of Isaiah's lion laying down with the lamb. Nothing odd here — just a foretelling of the arrival of the just offspring of Judah that will fulfill God's promise.
But in the gospel ... if you ignore the fact that Jesus is the speaker, and instead consider this as we await the coming of Jesus, the reversals become ever-more amplified:
People will die of fright
in anticipation of what is coming upon the world,
for the powers of the heavens will be shaken.
And then they will see the Son of Man
coming in a cloud with power and great glory.
And yet how does Luke have the Son of Man coming? Certainly not in a cloud of glory and might. Not in this big earth-shattering event. No, as a little baby, born in a feed trough. I can't think of too many people who worry about "dying of fright" at the prospect of a new life being brought into the world (with the exception perhaps of Matthew's Herod, who decides to kill all the other little kids). Of course not. We throw parties, and buy minitature versions of our favorite hiking boots, and tell the new parents that "their lives will never be the same." Think of Linus' famous monologue, and tell me where there's the violent sky-rending apocalypse that we see pictured here. It's all cute little sheep and quiet snowfall (with a few creative liberties taken here for effect!).
Basically, what we see here sets the stage for what is to come. We expect a thunder-inducing giant, and we receive instead a baby in a manger. We expect a glorious savior, and we get some guy who hangs out in fishing boats. We expect a victor who will overcome our enemies, and instead we get some schmuck who gets himself killed. We expect to be told that our "doing the right thing" will get us to heaven, and instead we hear how these sinners and prostitutes get in too. Nothing's happening the way we think it should happen. Which, I suppose, makes this a good time to remind us of the Rule of Benedict, 4:21-22: Your way of acting should be different from the world's way; the love of Christ must come before all else.
What better way to live into this idea of "being different from the world's way" then to examine these reversals of Luke. We've heard them so often, they don't even seem odd to us. But when we truly listen ... then they really do shake the heavens.
So, as we begin this new year, let us open ourselves to hear these texts anew. May we allow Luke to shake things up and keep us on our toes with the unexpectedness of his teachings. Perhaps then we can become vigilant, lest "that day catch [us] by surprise like a trap." Perhaps then our way of acting may begin to diverge from the world's way.
And perhaps then we may begin to truly "prefer nothing whatever to Christ."


Blogger Dennis said...

Wow. Give you a challenge, like taking an upper-level elective, and see what cool things you come away with! Loved your reflection. I was noticing the End and the Beginning stuff yesterday in the readings, but never connected it to the Lukan pattern. Excellent!

12/04/2006 7:15 AM  

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