By Juan Oliver
For those churches that use the seasons of the year, the season of Advent (the coming or arrival) prepares us for the celebration of Christmas. This year it officially starts the Sunday after Thanksgiving. In churches using set readings appointed for the season, these speak of the end of the world and its consumation as God’s project. It can be challenging to reflect in some depth about Thanksgiving in the context of these readings, but Juan Oliver does so below.
“What are we thankful for?” is a question that will be heard around a lot of turkeys next week. We will gladly share our blessings, mentioning health, family, and loved ones. We will bask in comfort and love and be grateful.
And yet, for the next month or so, those who go to church might find themselves utterly confused. As we prepare to celebrate Christmas, we shall also be hearing about the“end of the world.” The end of the world as we know it, a world in the death grip of corporate and individual greed, –the Kingdom of Money, ever so adroit at fabricating our desires, the very desires that generate envy, self-pity and even self-obsession. The world where creation is systematically abused and destroyed. About this situation, God says through Isaiah:
Look, I am about to create new heavens and a new earth. Weeping will no longer be heard, nor cries of distress. No more children will die at birth nor grown ups die before their time. …they shall build houses and inhabit them; they shall plant vineyards and eat their fruit. They shall not build and another inhabit; they shall not plant and another eat; …my people shall long enjoy the work of their own hands. They shall not labor in vain, or bear children for calamity… (Is 65:17, 19b-23a).
The transformation offered is so thorough that even whole ecosystems will be healed: “The wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom;… and rejoice with joy and singing.”(Is 35:1) And this New World will not only be filled with justice for the poor and the oppressed –even oppressed ecosystems; it will also be a world of utter peace and safety, without any violence at all, not even “natural” violence:
The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and even a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like theox. (Is 65:25).
This just and peaceful world will also be a world of healing:
Then the eyes of the blind shall be opened,and the ears of the deaf unstopped; then the lame shall leap like a deer, and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy. (Is 35:5-6a).
What a world! It bears almost no resemblance to ours, transfixed in misery, suffering and oppression. The mere news of it is reason for joy. But all along, as we are offered this New World Sunday by following Sunday, we are also given fair warning: the world’s transformation will be costly. We will also hear things like:
…before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; …hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors, …you will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. (Lk 21:5-19).
When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom… and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.(Lk 21:9a-11).
Leaders are specially warned:
Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! …I will deal with you for your evil doings … I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any of them be missing, says God. The days are surely coming, says the God, when I will raise up one who will “reign as king and deal wisely, and shall work justice and righteousness inthe land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: “God is our justice.” (Je 23:1 ff).
What a bummer. Still, the process has begun. The gospels present the appearance of Jesus in the world as the beginning of this transformation:
…John the Baptist announced, “turn your hearts,, for the kingdom of heaven [the transformed, new world] has come near.” (Mt 3:1-2).
When John sent word by his disciples to ask Jesus, “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” Jesus answered “..the blind see, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them.” (Mt 11:2-11)
The Sunday after Thanksgiving we get early warning ofthe ultimate price paid for bringing in a New World:
[While Jesus hung on the cross] The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, “If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!” There was also an inscription over him, “This is the King of the Jews.” (Lk 23:37-38).
We find him living still among us, specially when we gather to eat together. And he will be back when the New World is a full reality to inspect (parousia) like a visiting dignitary, the work of transformation.
… So stay vigilant, for you do not know on what day your God is coming. You must be ready, for He is coming at an unexpected hour. (Mt 24:44).
Maddening, no? A transformation already happening, but not yet! The process is already begun, and trusting eyes can see it clearly already and sing with joy and gratitude:
Sing to the LORD a new song, for he has done marvelous things. (Ps. 98:1).
God gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. Sets the prisoners free; gives justice to those who are oppressed, and food to those who hunger. God sets prisoners free; opens the eyes of the blind; lifts up those who are bowed down. God loves justice-doers. God cares for the immigrant and sustains theorphan and widow, but frustrates the way ofthe wicked. (Ps. 146:4-9).
In no other song is this joy at the coming New World stronger than in Mary’s song. She seems to be living in it already, her trust so complete that she can sing of the transformation as something already accomplished:
…God has cast down the mighty from their thrones, and has lifted up the lowly. He has filled the hungry with good things, and he has sent the wealthy away empty. He has come to the help of his people for he has remembered his promise of mercy.” (Lk 1:52-54).
A Thanksgiving that concentrates on emotional comfort, cuteness and an aw-shucks spirituality completely misses the biblical context of what it is all about. It is not about the turkey, –not even only about family and friends, certainly not about football or getting ready for Black Friday. The mixed readings we will be hearing in church are not a mistake, nor embarrassing. They do not need to be explained away. They are a vision of the healing of the world, its certainty, and the cost. They are the reason why Christians give thanks every single week at a Table, and why being thankful is, as Henri Nowen said, the heart of prayer.
This is also perhaps why Luke has Jesus proclaim that the coming Kingdom of God (known as the “New World” in the Syriac tradition) belongs to the poor. Among all of us, they are specially blessed, for they live day to day with their noses in the wounds of the world, unable to deny its need for healing, with no choice than to live by faith (trust) in God.
I often ask our congregation of immigrants, “What will our lives be like when the New World comes?” And the answers come loud and clear: “There will be immigration reform. We will not have to work for less than the minimum wage. We will have health care. Our kids will not have to join the army to get citizenship. We will be able to navigate the system and not be taken advantage of.”
Ask anyone oppressed the same question, and you will get, instead of “spiritual” platitudes, a list of concrete changes itching to become real. The good news is that the list is being filled and in the process of becoming a reality. That’s plenty reason to be grateful.
The comfortable, the “self made,” those who see no need to heal a “self-regulating” world, will totally miss the point. And yet, the message is so strong, so planted in the most basic experience of a family warmly gathered that they –even they– will reach out and help others, aware, however dimly, of the New World dawning.
Dr. Oliver has published widely on worship, Hispanic ministry, and the full welcome of gay and lesbian persons inthe Episcopal Church. His most recent project on Hispanic ministry, “Ripe Fields: The Promise and Challenge of Hispanic Ministry” (New York: Church Publishing) was published in 2009. He is a member of TheAssociated Parishes for Liturgy and Mission, as whose president he served from 1997 to 2001. At St. Bede´s, Santa Fe, he has since 2009, developed a growing Spanish speaking congregation which celebrates the Eucharist as a full meal open to all.