Fr. Isaac Slater, OCSO
4th Sunday Advent
The root conflict in our world today… is not between political parties, or a clash of civilizations between the west and the Arab world… but more fundamentally between the violence of sin and the gospel of peace—the peace that comes into the world at Christmas in the person of Jesus Christ.
This peace is always a gift—and never the result of violence. As long as “peace”, or at least a modicum of ‘security’ is based on the brutal suppression of others, it will fail. In Jesus’ words, “Those who live by the sword will die by it.”
Both political parties in our nation are alike in their addiction to violence; from the mass incarceration of the poor, to bellicose foreign policy; both the ‘enlightened’ west, wiping out civilian targets with drone strikes, and Muslim fanatics… seek to impose their will by violence. In the light of faith, there is only the choice between idolatry and worship of the living God, in spirit and truth.
In the pagan world the cosmos was understood to be the product of violent conflict among intra-cosmic gods and elemental forces; if a human group was struck by some catastrophe, a terrible storm or plague … or if they received some unlooked for blessing… they would need to re-set the cosmic balance by appeasing the gods.
By sacrificing something of value to themselves, the first-fruits of their crops or even their own sons and daughters, they would force the gods to comply with their wishes, they would impose a control on cosmic forces constantly slipping toward chaos.
Today the secular nation state presents itself as a neutral, rational space, adjudicating between a plurality of rival voices, of which the Church is simply one among many, on equal footing with the rest, beneath the State—but it’s become very clear that the nation has gods of its own, gods of money and power that it worships in a cult of ritual violence.
The secular is never unbiased; one sees this for instance in hyper-secularist regimes that praise ‘freedom of speech’ while suppressing any hint of religious expression in the public square… with the fervor of a Taliban leader forbidding mini-skirts!
The only alternative is the gospel of Peace, the peace that enters the world at Christmas; Hebrews this morning imagines these words on the lips of the Son of God “Sacrifice and offering you did not desire, but a body you prepared for me; in holocausts and sin offerings you took no delight. Then I said, ‘As is written of me in the scroll, behold, I come to do your will, O God….”
By allowing himself to be the ritual victim of the world’s brutality Jesus exposes and abolishes sacrifice. The fact that we are aware of “violence” at all, that we can speak and think of it, rather than assume it to be simply the nature of reality as the ancient pagans did … is a fruit of Jesus’ paschal mystery. The secret element that undermines sin from inside …is the freedom of obedience. “He takes away the first to establish the second.” He takes away sacrifice to establish obedience. He replaces the coercion of gods by self-mutilation, with free cooperation.
Unlike the pagan gods of the past, or the worldly powers and principalities we fall down before today, the God of the Bible infinitely transcends the world; he is supremely free and creates the universe as a magnificent, amazingly generous gift. He is a free God and he calls us to be free; it’s our freedom that constitutes his image within us. The biblical story reveals a chosen people called to a new way of worship, constantly in danger of slipping back into the idolatry of the world around them.
Abraham receives the amazing gift of Isaac—he feels he must re-set the balance, so like the peoples around him he prepares to sacrifice his child. When the true God intervenes and reveals the promise, Abraham believes God and obeys, that is, he spares Isaac in obedience to the command of this new God and sets out on a new path ‘without knowing where he is going.’
What begins with Abraham culminates in Mary, “blessed among women,” blessed because she was uniquely without the violence of original sin, and so able to believe and obey the word of Peace so perfectly it took flesh in her womb.
The fundamental conflict between the idolatry of sin and worship in spirit and truth, is played out not only on the world stage, but in our own hearts, day by day.
By our attachments and addictions we seek to impose order on the chaos of our passions, and wind up only more enslaved. We prefer to sacrifice ourselves in ways we control, rather than take the risk of obedience to the God of freedom. God does not want this kind of sacrifice but the much more demanding gift of mature, discerning, creative obedience. He wants us to co-operate with him in turning all things to good. The Eucharist we receive this morning has the power to heal our hearts and our world…
In union with Mary, may we so believe in the promise of Peace, that we bring it to birth, here and now, within the violence of this world.