Sermon for High Mass – Advent 2 Sunday 9 December 2018
From the gospel:
‘the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
From Pope Francis to those gathered in St Peter’s Square as his election was announced:
“You know that the work of the conclave is to give a bishop to Rome,” the new Pontiff said. “It seems as if my brother cardinals went to find him from the end of the earth, but here we are. Thank you for the welcome.
Francis says two significant things there, one of which went unnoticed at the time. The idea of a pope ‘from the end of the earth’, a great phrase, captured the imagination. But few noticed the point he was making, that he was chosen from the end of the earth to be Bishop of Rome: being Pope just happens to come with the job and, for historical reasons, it is not even an Archbishopric. The Archbishop of Buenos Aires was taking a hierarchical step down. Francis has never referred to himself as Pope, always as ‘Bishop of Rome’, just as our own beloved 39 Articles of Religion do. In that self-description lies a key to many other things he has said and done in his energetic and controversial pontificate, and to why they have proved controversial.
There is a lot of talk these days in our Communion about the Christianity of the Global South, seen variously as a threat, a usurper or a shining light. Francis, like me, comes from that global south, and I think I understand some of what he’s been up against. Behind that ‘global south’ label is a narrative of colonialism which always collides with the global north in ways which lead to misunderstanding.
Francis speaks, sometimes, in a rather unreconstructed Latin male way, as when for example, he described Europe as “haggard… now a grandmother, no longer fertile and vibrant.” (apparently provoking an angry phone call from Angela Merkel). I recognise that weariness with the old world which we of the new world sometimes exasperatedly feel, not from chippiness or a sense of reverse superiority (well not entirely). There is a frustration that the energy and creativity we recognise in the global south (mostly Africa and South America) is so often discounted in Europe and North America, which claim the sole rights to culture and tradition, even as history leaves that story behind.
Francis meets, with grace and firmness, a dual prejudice, both cultural and institutional: against Latin Americans by Hispanic Europe, and against South Americans by those from el Norte. Previous South American hierarchs who have made it in the Vatican, like Cardinal Estevez from Chile, have done it by being more reactionary than the historic overlords. Francis does not favour that approach. So those with a powerful investment in the status quo have gone on the attack, asserting Francis’ intellectual inferiority to Benedict; trying to create a discontinuity which neither Benedict nor Francis acknowledges. But Francis is playing a different game from his predecessor’s, one typical of those formerly colonised who come from a differently rich tradition.
The recent study of his intellectual background, Massimo Borghesi’s The Mind of Pope Francis forcefully dispels the myth of intellectual shallowness. His rich and deep Jesuit intellectual formation has produced a thinker no less subtle than Benedict, but one impatient of the Academy in which Benedict feels most at home. The visible discontinuity, the less flamboyant liturgical style, is unimportant to him, both as a South American and a Jesuit. Jesuits are famously uninterested in liturgy (the standard Roman Catholic simile for liturgical uselessness is ‘like a Jesuit in Holy Week’).
And Francis, coming from ‘the end of the earth’, where refined culture is a luxury, is impatiently prophetic, which is my reason for linking him with John the Baptist today. Complex writings in academic discourse from his days as Jesuit superior in Argentina were appropriate and forthcoming there. But he now wants, urgently, to distil his thought into a discourse that all Christians can understand. So he speaks as the, sometimes unfiltered, octogenarian Latin male he is, and as bishop of Rome to his brother and sister Christians. He sometimes apologises for off the cuff mistakes, and wishes to converse rather than lecture. He is interested in dialogue rather than the formulation of rigid and final pronouncements. Borghesi identifies in Francis’s thought four overarching principles about human society, our relationships with each other and with God, which are disarmingly simple and yet theologically and philosophically nuanced. These are that
Unity is superior to conflict
The whole is superior to the parts
Time is superior to space
Reality is superior to ideas.
The last derives from the first three: that’s the one we see him bringing into play again and again when confronted with rigidity of pastoral practice. These principles were formulated against a theological battle between reactionary conservatism and Marxist-influenced radicalism in his own context, both of which he sees as missing the offer of the Gospel.
Francis works happily with unresolved tension, describing himself as ‘calm chaos’, a living synthesis of opposites. This is not the 70’s and 80’s obsession with ‘woundedness’; Francis sees it as a place of joy, the chaos of a large and necessarily-related family. In it, the particular assumes its meaning in the horizon of the universal, while the universal is perceived as real only starting from the particular.
This theology makes Francis’s proclamation of the gospel, from his unique pulpit as Bishop of Rome, urgent and grounded, like John the Baptist’s in today’s short passage from Luke, which picks up Old Testament references such as the Isaiah he quotes and the Baruch we heard read. We began, in Luke, with an almost comic pile-up of the great and the good in order firmly to locate the gospel action in a real time and place. But then, he says, the word of God came not to any of these, but to ‘John, son of Zechariah, in the wilderness‘ (hear the echo in Francis’ ‘from the end of the earth‘?).
John the Baptist’s story is steeped in imagery recalling both the Exodus from Egypt and the return from Babylonian Exile. But lest it be seen in merely symbolic terms, Luke places John’s activity and the ensuing ministry of Jesus squarely in the real world: the events of salvation happen, identifiably, in world history. In Francis’ phrase, reality is superior to ideas.
The advent of God, in Jesus, and the fulfilment that it announces, happen within world history. The gospel, like its Old Testament references, situates the ministry of John within a particular period of world history and in an identifiable place. God works within everyday life, in conventional places, during regular time: the extraordinary events of salvation occur, deliberately, in the ordinary. That is a principal of the gospel: the good news, like human life, is personal, local and particular, offered in dialogue with the universal and divine.
Advent is not a season in which we merely remember something that happened two thousand years ago, nor a time for anticipating a mysterious ungraspable future. It is within our grasp, but with one eye on Browning’s line that ‘a man’s reach should exceed his grasp, or what’s a heaven for’. That’s the sort of tension with which Francis urges us to live with, and the nuance of the Advent hope. The Blessed Sacrament is the tangible expression of that tension.
We are reminded at this season that the hope of eternal life is grounded in the personal, local and particular. The Mass offers us that here every day and Advent sheds light on just how great a gift this sacrament is: the pledge of future glory, a reality not an idea.