As the Waters Swell the Sea

The Second Sunday of Advent pulls us up short. No time now for any more dithering. We have Isaiah warning that the word of the Lord is ‘a rod to strike the ruthless’ and John the Baptist baptising with water but threatening fire to those who prove to be no more than chaff. Meanwhile we sit comfortably with our commentaries and talk complacently about the end times and the eschatalogical hope expressed in the Advent liturgy. We forget that ‘the end times’ are now, as everything the liturgy celebrates is now. We already tread the holy mountain that is the privileged meeting-place between God and human beings, for all the earth has been sanctified and every step we take is on holy ground. The winnowing-fan is already applied to us, to sift through the secret motives of our hearts and minds, and John’s urgent call to repentance has resounded again and again in our ears. But what is our response?

I think many of us would admit that our response is, at best, a little half-hearted. We read Isaiah and are enthusiastic about its messianic vision, but we are not quite so enthusiastic about doing what is necessary to realise it. When we pray for peace, we pray for the wolf to change, as though he could cease to be a meat-eater and somehow become a grass-nibbler; or, we’ll pray for the lamb to change, as though she could become a predator and instil fear in other animals. We forget that both must learn to live together, in mutual trust and respect. We like the idea of being ‘filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea’ but we shy away from too close a contact with this strange and terrible God who dwells in fire and flame and whose holiness is utterly other; and yet . . . and yet we are drawn by his tenderness and compassion and end up as confused as John’s hearers, whom he called a brood of vipers but who, far from turning an adder’s deaf ear, longed to hear more. We must prepare a way for the Lord in our hearts, but how?

The answer to that question is very simple. We answer it every night at Compline when we look back on the day’s doings and ask ourselves, ‘What have I wanted today? Where has my desire  been?’ The haunting beauty of the Advent liturgy, all its fine phrases, its plangent music, avails us nothing if it does not lead to that moment of choice, when we choose to be converted, to seek Christ — as he is, and not as we would like him to be. The reality of God must burst in upon us as the sea rushes into a cove. That is what it means to be filled with the knowledge of the Lord as the waters swell the sea, to be God’s pure wheat safely gathered into his barn.

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Hospitality on the Way

It isn’t difficult to see the connection between today’s first Mass reading, about Abraham at the Oak of Mamre (Genesis 18.1-10), and the gospel, about Martha and Mary and the supper they gave Jesus (Luke 10.38-42). Hospitality, we say enthusiastically: it is all about welcoming the stranger and the different ways in which we welcome God into our lives. Well, yes, it is; but both readings present us with some difficulties which remind us that it is more than that.

Genesis’s account of Abraham welcoming angels unawares and ending up with the gift of a son, through whom God’s promises will be realised, may read a little strangely to us, but it is a warm and reassuring kind of strangeness. We can take away from it nothing more demanding than the idea that if we are nice to others, we shall be blessed. We can conveniently forget the terrifying aspect of angels in the Old Testament or the strict rules about hospitality among nomadic peoples and the demands they made on both individual and tribe. The way in which the text, even in translation, switches from plural to singular and back again may alert us to an underlying complexity; but we do not have to engage with it, if we do not want to. Abraham is hospitable. That is all we have to take to heart, isn’t it?

The same is not true of the Martha and Mary story. It has often been used to exalt contemplation over action, with an awkward nod in the direction of admitting that Martha and Mary are sisters, so consequently both prayer and action are necessary in the Christian life — which is true, but tends to make the preacher’s homily end a little lamely. Occasionally, a few historical details are thrown into the mix which hint at something more going on than a sisterly dispute about who does what. Mary sits at the feet of Jesus. That is the attitude of the rabbi’s disciple, from which she, as a woman, is culturally excluded, as well as that of the hesychast. Then there is the ambiguity of where all this takes place. We assume it is at Bethany in Judah, where Martha had her home, but Luke situates this story in the midst of a series of passages connected with Samaria. Is this about hospitality in the land of outcasts? Are Martha and Mary accompanying Jesus on his journeying and going ahead to prepare a meal? Suddenly, this familiar passage begins to look unfamiliar, transgressing boundaries, making us think anew about what it means to be a disciple, our conventional roles, and the expectations we have of others.

One thing I think we can all take from this, even if we want to go on reading the texts at a simple level, is the need to be welcoming whatever our circumstances. Most of us tend to be hospitable at home, where we can decide the level of welcome we will extend to others, the amount of time we will give, the food and drink we will set before them. It is, if we are honest, the hospitality of those who are in control. But I think that, as Christians, we are called upon to exercise the hospitality of those who are not in control, those who receive rather than bestow grace and are often stretched further than they would like — the hospitality of the nomad suddenly confronted with hungry strangers whom he must feed, no matter how slim his resources, the hospitality of women making the best shift they can in unfamiliar territory, the hospitality of the Benedictine who must see each guest as Christ. Hospitality on the way is less about giving, more about sharing. It topples us from the familar position of host or hostess, but it grants us a place at the table; and who could ask more than that?

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