John Bennison Words and Ways | 2011 | October

What is Social Justice? A Pathways Perspective Series Commentary

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 A Pathways Perspective Series Commentary:

What is “Social Justice”?


What is “Justice?”

When we hear the word ‘justice’ different ideas may come to mind.  Most commonly perhaps, one may think of compensatory justice, where the blind scale of justice metes out what’s determined to be “fair” between two parties, ideally without prejudice.  This can include the offending party and “victim”.  Often these days, the arguments over this kind of justice have to do with personal injury, the debate over frivolous lawsuits and the call for tort reform.

Then there’s retributive justice, a form of compulsory penance, where the offender is required to repay their “debt” to society.  This is what is commonly called the criminal justice system, and it’s hard to channel surf your TV without running into episodes of Law & Order or reality shows about cops on the beat or prison life behind bars, presented as entertainment.

Both of these kinds of justice are extensions of regulatory justice, the manner in which our civil society establishes and maintains order.  There’s even a Department of Justice, to oversee and defend the law of the land; while courts are clogged with a backlog of cases, and the supply of over-crowded prisons can’t keep up with the demand.

Social justice, however, has to do with something more than rules and regulations, compensation or retribution.


 Social Justice is always more

Social justice is always about something more. It tempers, even compromises, the hard edges of what is otherwise black or white, right or wrong, guilt or innocence; with consideration given to what may be “right,” when what may be right may be more than simply what is “fair.”

It is about distributive and restorative justice, where the common good is advanced; with a kind of redemptive redress that seeks balance where there is imbalance in the social order.  There is a moral imperative; as well as an indefensible component, often simply defined as a sense of compassion.  It is that empathic response that stirs a social conscience that compels the work of social justice.

Social justice always has this more element.  And the task for those who would undertake to raise a call for social justice is not to simply prosecute or defend one side or another; but rather to discern and present the “back-story” behind the headlines.

Here are some current examples:


Example 1: Heath Care

The Story:

On the surface, the story is about the reform of a health care industry, spiraling health care costs and insurance premiums, the debate over government-mandated coverage, bureaucratic waste, and arguments over a “public option.” Almost muffled by the din of these debates remains the whole quandary over medical ethics, modern-miracle technology surpassing affordability and sustainability, and a kind of unmentionable triage process.

The Back-Story:

The back-story goes deeper, asking what place there should be for a compassionate response to health care as a basic human need.  How are the dynamics of the debate shaped when health care is primarily seen to be “managed” as a regulated “industry?”

When is reckless generosity ever appropriate (e.g. a Good Samaritan delivers health care, Luke 10:25-37)?  What is the onus of “socialization” all about?

More so, when and how is the relationship between health and wholeness ultimately understood as something more than curative treatment at unaffordable costs and unattainable means (hence, palliative care)?

Ultimately, health care is about life care.  It deals with the physical, mental, emotional and spiritual aspects of living and dying. Social justice as a back-story to the health care debates asks how can we have a conversation about these fundamental human necessities.


Example 2: The Economy

The Story:

The story is all about the projected slow pace of a recovery, the threat of a double-dip recession, deficit spending, stimulus strategies and resistance to increased revenue (taxes).

It’s about “class warfare” and the widening chasm between the elite and powerful and the disenfranchised and marginalized poor, the vanishing middle class, disconnect between Wall Street and Main Street.

It’s about the threat of fiscally-bankrupt government entitlement programs, volatility in global markets, too-big-to-fail bailouts, perceived corporate greed, trade deficits, and partisan politics over statesmanship.

The Back Story:

The back story has to do with a “recovery” that will not return to anything like what came before.  And, it has to do with the tension of certain conflicting human values.

On an individual level, it has to do with generosity and greed, fear and hoarding or abundance.

On a communal level it has to do with the social “compact,” the role of corporate social responsibility in free-market models, and its relationship to the corporate bottom line.

Social justice seeks balance in a restorative and distributive economic model that is sustainable, reciprocal and mutually beneficial social entrepreneurship.


Example 3: The Unemployment

The Story:

The unemployment story has to do with a jobless recovery, the growing ranks of chronic unemployed and under-employed, the reluctance of the employers to hire, the courtship of business by government with incentive, the threat of cheap foreign labor and “unfair” competition.

The Back Story:

But the back-story has to do with the subtler long-term ramifications of decline and decay in communities, neighborhoods and households.  The long term effects of the unemployment “epidemic” can have far-reaching consequences.  Self-identity, self-esteem, self-worth, meaning and purpose are closely tied what one does for a “living.”  The common characteristics of traumatic stress syndrome can be found at job fairs and along the unemployment lines.

British epidemiologist and the co-author of “The Spirit Level,” Richard Wilkinson chronicles a strong correlation between wealth inequality and poor health society-wide.  When does such a prevalent social malaise become a matter of social justice?


Example 4: The Housing Crisis

The Story:

The housing crisis is a story about record foreclosures, irresponsible lending practices, default credit swaps, etc.

The Back Story:

The back-story not only raises the problems of affordable housing and homelessness to a whole new level, with the displacement of entire families; but strikes at the heart of the American dream of home ownership, as well.  A roof over ones head represents a sense of adequacy, sufficiency and security.  As the ancient prophet envisioned it,

“They shall sit every man under his vine and under his fig tree; and none shall make them afraid.”  (Micah 4:4 – English Revised Version)

Home is also both literally and metaphorically a place of return from journey, even exile.  When a sense of home is no longer even a matter of shelter, and housing is reduced to a matter of default, foreclosure and eviction process on such a massive scale as today’s lingering crisis, there is something more fundamentally out of whack than a poorly regulated lending and credit industry and irresponsible consumers buying more than they can afford.

Social justice can give voice to the back-story.


Example 5: The Economy

The Story:

The story of immigration reform has to do with illegal aliens, border security and law enforcement.  If we can’t substantially arrest the flow of illegal drugs into this country, then we should at least ensure the drug war violence does not creep across the border.

The Back Story:

But the back-story is much more complex.  It is about more than the underground economy of cheap labor, or market we provide for illegal drugs.  It is about how we regard, engage and treat the one who is both a stranger and our neighbor.  In the biblical world, hospitality was a test of one’s openness to the possibility of a divine presence; represented by the appearance of the unknown stranger at the door.  In the modern world, we build walls and rely on technology to avoid the possibility of such an examination and encounter.


Social Justice is also always about Hope and Change …


Everything must change
Nothing stays the same …
The young become the old
And mysteries do unfold
Cause that’s the way of time
Nothing and no one goes unchanged

 Everything must change, Lyrics by Bernard Ighner


Change is the one constant, and arguably the one thing we most often resist; especially if things seem to be going from good to bad, or from bad to worse.  So it is with health care, the economy, and even American “exceptionalism.” The young become the old and frail.  Economic bubbles burst.  What goes up, must come down.  That’s the way the story goes.

But that’s not the whole story.  We have a choice. Change has a way of irrepressibly moving us from where we are to somewhere else.  When it comes to social change, nations and peoples successively rise and fall, totalitarian regimes eventually tumble.  But then what?  Just more of the same?

There is in any progression (even recession), an evolution of social consciousness that awakens and waits. There is an “arc of the moral universe that is long,” as Martin Luther King put it, “but it bends towards justice.”  Oppression and bondage can lead to exodus and liberation.  There is possibility here.

Moments of opportunity arise with inevitable, predictable regularity.  As the poet’s line goes, “In my end is my beginning.” (T.S. Eliot) People of faith sometimes affirm it is how hope and promise of new life can arise out of the dust and ashes of destitution, despair, even death.  It is sometimes a matter of putting faith into action.


 There is in any progression (even recession), an evolution of social consciousness that awakens and waits. … There is possibility here. It is sometimes a matter of putting faith into action.


Social justice is that agent that takes us from the way things are to the way things might be.  It provides the inertia that helps to bend what is inevitable change in a certain direction.  That direction is what is sometimes called the common good.

To achieve the common good there must first be common ground.  No one is seldom absolutely right or wrong, and the truth that the voice of social justice seeks common ground. But there is an unmistakable agenda and unwavering conviction to the fundamental principles of distributive and restorative justice.

When inevitable change occurs, such an understanding of social justice can not only provide spirited conversation, but a vision of the way things might be.


© 2011 by John William Bennison, Rel.D.

All rights reserved.

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A Homily for Advent III, 2009

Appointed texts, for context:

I will remove disaster from you, so that you will not bear reproach for it. I will deal with all your oppressors at that time. And I will save the lame and gather the outcast, and I will change their shame into praise and renown in all the earth. At that time I will bring you home, at the time when I gather you; for I will make you renowned and praised among all the peoples of the earth, when I restore your fortunes before your eyes,says the LORD. Zephaniah 3

The LORD will indeed grant prosperity, and our land will yield its increase. Psalm 85:12

Do not worry about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. Finally, beloved, whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and if there is anything worthy of praise, think about these things. Keep on doing the things that you have learned and received and heard and seen in me, and the God of peace will be with you. Philippians 4:5-9

John said to the crowds that came out to be baptized by him, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, `We have Abraham as our ancestor’; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree thereforethat does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” And the crowds asked him, “What then should we do?” In reply he said to them, “Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; andwhoever has food must do likewise.” Even tax collectors came to be baptized, and they asked him, “Teacher, what should we do?” He said to them, “Collect no more than the amount prescribed for you.” Soldiers also asked him, “And we, what should we do?” He said to them, “Do not extort money from anyone bythreats or false accusation, and be satisfied with your wages.” As the people were filled with expectation, and all were questioning in their hearts concerning John, whether he might be the Messiah, John answered all of them by saying, “I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people. Luke 3:7-18

Let me summarize John’s prophetic passage from Luke, in contemporary terms: There’ll be accountability for the brood of vipers and their excessive greed; adequate abundance for everyone else, measured in terms of whatever is minimally sufficient if we all share a little bit more than we have; and a winnowing fork that will imminentlyseparate those who grasp the concept and act on it, from those who don’t.

Such is the “good news” of John proclamation about what we’re all supposed to eagerly anticipate. No wonder we can hardly wait for Christmas! It certainlyexceeds all my expectations … Hence the title to this reflection.

Well, the perennial script this time of year between my beloved and myself goes a little like this.

“What do you want for Christmas?” Germaine asks.

“The usual,” I reply. “Socks, underwear, I suppose; and of course, since I like to fly and don’t have one of my own, an airplane would be nice.”

“I wish I could get you a plane,” she replies in earnest. “But what you really need are new slippers.”

She’s been trying to get me to replace my old, tattered slippers with the holes in the toes for several years now. This year she’s determined, and I suspect she’ll lavish me with a new pair we found at a slashed-discount price yesterday when we went Christmas shopping in the rain.

The crowds were sparse as we scurried past empty storefronts in the upscale Broadway Plaza section of Walnut Creek. Only a few years ago, entire shops that sold only exclusive brands of non-essential products bustled with activity. Times have changed. People’s lowered expectations have finally declined to levels I’ve enjoyed for years. The chickens have come home to roost. The winnowing fork has done its job, it seems. So where’s the good news?

“Salvation” in the holiday season seems to most often be expressed in terms of economic recovery. Will consumer spending save retailers at year’s end? Early numbers beginning with Black Friday and Cyber Monday indicate mixed results. My reasoning has always been to wait till December 26th, and take advantage of the post-holiday sale prices. Since there are twelve days in the Christmas season, I would argue, and the Wise Men didn’t even arrive to set the example with their extravagant gifts until Twelfth Night, what’s the rush? I could never convince my children when they were young, and Germaine still won’t go for it even now.

Perhaps if I were to lavish her with one sparklybauble or trinket each day for twelve days she’d be more receptive? On the first day of Christmas, my true love could receive a partridge in a pear tree. On the second day, two turtle doves; on the third day, three calling birds, and so forth.

But according to the annual “Christmas Price Index” compiled by PNC Wealth Management, making one’s true love happy will cost a whopping $87,403 this year, up 1% from last year.

As you might guess, the main driver behind the higher cost is the price of gold for the five rings. Although wage increases were modest, nine ladies dancing, at $5,473 per performance, is the costliest item, surpassing that of any of the material goods. The most expensive goods are the seven swans a-swimming at $5,250. Costs for the 10 lords a-leaping, 11 pipers piping, and 12 drummers drumming remained the same as last year – reflecting labor market conditions in which the unemployment rate rose to10%.

And for those who would shop online, a word of caution. Internet prices are higher than their non-Internet counterparts because of associated shipping costs for all those damn birds.

Presumably, I could take comfort it’s up a mere $794 over last year. However, since we rarely even budget $794 for all our Christmas spending in this household, such extravagance would certainly make this year the costliest Christmas for us on record.

Fortunately, and in the nick of time, I heard of a possible antidote enabling me to resist any such temptation; described on NPR’s marketplace the other day. The radio host interviewed a behavioral economist, Dan Ariely, along with his new book, Predictably Irrational; about tips on how to practice self-control over the holidays.

Studies have shown if you exercise self-control you can supposedly increase it a little bit over time. That’s the good news. Unfortunately, it was further found that as controls and resources were increasingly depleted over time, then the more people would try to resist, the harder it became when the opportunity arose to satisfy what we desire. This only makes sense to me. A starving beggar is much more likely to steal a loaf of bread.

Yet it’s not simply that I can’t afford to break the bank this year, or that I have superhuman powers to resist the temptation, when it comes to thinking about what I might give and receive this Christmas. And it’s all got me thinking a little more seriously this Advent season. It’s along the lines of some of the ideas expressed by progressive evangelical, Jim Wallis, who’s publishing a book next month,

Rediscovering Values: On Wall Street, Main Street, and Your Street –A Moral Compass for the New Economy.

“The Great Recession that has gripped the world, defined the moment, and captured all of our attention has also revealed a profound values crisis. Just beneath the surface of the economics debate, a deep national reflection is begging to take place and, indeed, has already begun in people’s heads, hearts, and conversations. The questions it raises concern our personal, family, and national priorities; our habits of the heart; our measures of success; the values of our families and our children; our spiritual well-being; and the ultimate goals and purposes of life –including our economic life.

Underneath the public discourse, this other conversation is emerging about who and what we want to be. By and large, the media has missed the deeper discussion and continues to focus only upon the surface of the crisis. And most of our politicians just want to tell us how soon the crisis can be over. But there are deeper questions here and some fundamental choices to make.

It is also a sobering moment in our lives when we can see our own thoughtlessness, greed, and impatience writ large across the global sky. And it is a good time to start asking better questions. We must not go back to business as usual; rather, we need a new normal. The economic crisis exposed values that wrecked economies, cultures, families, and even our souls. A new normal could call us to return to virtues like enough-is-enough, we’re-in-It-together, … and a new meaning for both work and service.”

This new normal as an economic paradigm may be emerging, and will differ from the old back to business as usual model. Typically it has all come about by necessity, not preferred choice. On Friday the House of Representatives passed sweeping financial regulatory legislation. Of course, it’ll get significantly diluted in the Senate before anything comes to pass. But maybe, just maybe the public backlash against corporate greed, highly risky financial investments and excessive compensation packages reflects more than base envy andresentment on the part of the proletariat.

These days the subversive notion that enough-is¬enough may be less about putting an end to unparalleled avarice, and more a suggestion that economic health might better be measured with terms like “sufficient abundance,” rather than “unbridled GDP.”

The economic realities of the “new normal” might just displace the old economic model of economic health; that seems to be a trickle down model, no matter how you slice it. Then there’s the old line about John D. Rockefeller who was once asked, when will he would know when he had enough? To which he replied, “When I have just a little bit more.” But as we also all know, Rockefeller is very much dead and gone; which suggests to me he actuallyhas considerably less than “a little bit more.”

A new term has emerged for all of this. “Recession education” is teaching us what we can learn from living with less. One token example of how the recession has changed American consumer behavior is a McKinsey Quarterly report that found cheaper products are increasingly preferred over name brands. What this means is that premium companies waiting for a return to normality following the recession may be disappointed. Their customers are now learning to live without expensive products; opting for the cheaper price than the modest preference for the old familiar name brands.

Now, what could all this possibly have to do with Advent, a message for Christmas this year, and the rather harsh gospel passage we read this evening?

John the Baptist came into town with a prediction some impending cataclysmic events were going to turn everything upside down. The good times for some were over, and their former entitlements were out the window. Everyone was not only going to have to make do with what they had, but give a little to others, as well. He might well have been

describing Wall Street, Main Street, and the street where you live; announcing the arrival of what sounds like an unwelcome austerity gospel to a less than enthusiastic crowd.

But in so doing, he wasn’t really telling the people something that wasn’t obvious, inevitable and would soon come to pass. The Baptist’s listeners were on the tiptoe of expectation, Luke tells us; as if they thought they already knew what they were going to get for Christmas. Old visions and prophecies, like the ones we read and recited from Zephaniah and Psalm 85 tonight, describe the “return” to gifts of abundance and business as usual that would presumably accompany the long-awaited coming of the Anointed One.

How should they then prepare instead for a scenario John was foretelling? One that digressed quite drastically from what they’d been expecting? What should they do? He gives them a sort of “gift list.” It’s a redistribution list of what they already have.

And he then tells them what they’ll receive in return. It probably wasn’t near the top of their wish list. But what will come, with “fire and Spirit,” is a winnowing fork. What’s coming is the means by which all that is valuable and worthwhile (Paul’s wish list in Philippians about “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is pleasing, whatever is commendable, if there is any excellence and … anything worthy of praise”), might be separated from all the chaff, the clutter and the crap.

But what will come, with “fire and Spirit,” is a winnowing fork — the means by which all that is valuable and worthwhile might be separated from all the chaff, the clutter and the crap.

The Baptist doesn’t stop there with his good news announcement. If we think his ideas exceed our expectations, just wait. He can’t hold a candle to what’s coming after him. The costliest Christmas is yet to come. If I thought giving my beloved one over¬priced gift each day for 12 days cost too much, theone who is coming after the Baptist will show us how to give far more.

The costliest Christmas is about more than recession education. It’s about how to live beyond measure, beyond excess, exceeding expectation. And the good news? It doesn’t cost anything. Anyone can afford it. And, it costs everything.

Looking around us, the times are bleak. It is a bleak midwinter, when there’s more of less and less of more. I can hardly afford anything; so I can give everything. The times are hard . Time to sing a little carol.

What then can I give him, poor as I am?

If I were a shepherd I would bring a lamb.

And if I were a Wiseman I would do my part.

Yet what I can give him, I will give my heart.

Christina Rossetti, In the bleak midwinter

© 2009 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.

This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

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A Homily first drafted for House Church,Second Sunday of Advent, 2009

Text, for context: Luke 3:1-6

In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John sonof 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: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.”

This was the week when we were all but swept up in the prurient curiosity of a sports idol’s inability to drive his Escalade nearly as well as he can a golf ball down the fairway. It was almost too much to bear; what with spreading rumors suggesting he may, in fact, be as mortally imperfect as the rest of us duffers.

As if that wasn’t bad enough, some are still recovering from the lingering news of Oprah leaving daytime TV in a couple years; her own remake of what might be dubbed, The Long Goodbye.

Meanwhile, on the Beltway social circuit, the media can’t get enough of Tareq and Michaele Salahi. Were the White House state dinner party crashers just another pair of pathetic down-n-out attention-seeking publicity hounds? Or was there some profoundly important reason for them to get all decked out, to play the part, and seek to rub elbows with the powerful and influential elite?

We’ve all seen the film footage of the glamorous couple strutting past the cameras, then Michaele flirting with the Marine guards, chumming it up with Joe the VP, and finally greeting the Leader of the Free World, with big smiles all around.

What I want to know is what she said to the Prez? What important message did she have to deliver?

I’ll tell you, I’ve actually written the White House twice in the last week; once before Obama’s Afghanistan speech on Tuesday, and thesecond email following it. I haven’t heard back from him yet, so I’m wondering if he got the message.

If only I had the gumption of the Salahis. I had something urgent to share; something I thought was wise and helpful. I foresaw a bleak future for us as a people, as a nation. About a path in which we were about to embark amongstformidable mountains and valleys that once again appear to be crooked, and rough and wayward; rather than paths that are smooth and straight and level …

Ah! I think to myself. I should have been a prophet.

What I want to know is what she said to the Prez? What important messagedid she have to deliver?

I had something urgent to share; I foresaw … a path in which we wereabout to embark amongst formidablemountains and valleys that once again appear to be crooked, and rough andwayward; rather than paths that aresmooth and straight and level …

Ah! I think to myself. I should have been a prophet.


The common view of prophets, it seems to me, is not unlike that of fortune tellers, interpreters of signs and wonders, along with soothsayers, astrologers, palm readers and other charlatans; all predicting a future that is usually graphicallyportrayed as one of doom and gloom. In particular, what will happen if you don’t shape up, be good, watch out, don’t pout; ‘cause someone’s comin’ to town. In this regard, I suppose you might even cast John the Baptist, along with his message, in with that bunch.

John has simultaneously been dubbed the last prophet of the Old Testament and the first prophet of the New Testament. AKA John the Forerunner, he’s the one who goes on aheadand scouts out the lay of the land, the openness of hearts and minds, for what’s to come. Get ready, get right, ‘cause all your waiting and hoping is about to come to fruition. It’s not a mixed message; though it gets a mixed reception, depending on who’s going to get what, as a result.

In actuality, if we had been the first to hear John’s message, we should not have been all that startled; that is, if we were faithful Jews who knew the Torah, as well as the ancient, unfulfilled prophecies filled with messianic expectation; like the one from Isaiah, which John simply reiterates. It’s a message we would have heard before; passed down throughthe scripture tradition.

But it isn’t so much the message, as it is the character of the messenger that may be the more important point to this story. And that point remains true to that same biblical tradition; about the unconventional way God seems to do things, the way the message gets delivered. Listen again to the context:

“In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, … the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness.”

A wild-eyed religious rabble-rouser stumbles in from beyond the outer-markers of his society’s accepted standards of power and authority, with what has instead been given to him to proclaim.

All that name-dropping with which Luke begins this passage is not about simply providing historical authenticity. The more important point is that proper channels are being circumvented, passed over, disregarded or rejected. And if I had been Tiberias, Pilate, Herod, Philip or Lysanias –the real power brokers of the day –I should have been offended; perhaps to the point of wanting nothing to do with a god of such riff-raff as John the Baptist and his ilk.

But why does such a God have the inclination – if not a penchant – for upsetting the apple cart, defying appropriate earthly authorities; and, time and again, leaving the most important things in the hands of the last and least among us? Why would God, our God, do that?

But why does God have the inclination

– if not a penchant – for upsetting the apple cart, defying appropriate earthlyauthorities; and, time and again,leaving the most important things in the hands of the last and least amongus?

Why would God do that?

Here’s what I think:

There seems to be a common affliction that besets those who find themselves in positions of power and authority, when it comes to human institutions. Symptoms can include hearing loss and tunnel vision, rigidity and inflexibility, and perhaps most of all, a hardening of the heart. What is considered the routine exercise of power often results in flexing one’s muscles too much.

Other side effects are often reported. Expediency is mistaken for pragmatism; and preservation of the institution (and, in particular, its standard bearers at any particular moment) at all costs becomes the justification for the subtlest forms of insincerity and hypocrisy.


Though some might like to believe otherwise, I’ve discovered this condition seems to be just as true in ecclesiastical hierarchies as it is in social, governmental and political structures. It seems to be an occupational hazard.

Consequently – and as counter-intuitive as it may seem – the halls of power and authority are often the least likely place to usher in something authentically revelatory; preciselybecause it is the least likely place for something new to be well received. There’s too much at stake, too much to lose.

On the other hand, when you’ve got little to lose, and everything to gain, you’re ready to receive everything God has to give; without precondition, pretense or compromise.

So it was that, as Luke tells us, “the word of God came to John in the wilderness.”

I thought about all this the last couple days as I followed a story in the secular press about a gathering of Episcopalians in Los Angeles going through religious convulsions, as they elected not one, but two, women to be assistant bishops. Not only that, but one of them is an openly gay clergy person, in a committed relationship. She’s a real, live, practicing lesbian, for God’s sake.

Conventional thinking is these two actions will further fray and tatter the fabric of worldwide Anglican unity; as if its preservation was paramount.

I thought further about all this as I remembered an old friend to many of us, who was being ordained to the Episcopal deaconate yesterday, in San Francisco. Naomi is a woman whose own spiritual journey, long-standing faithfulness and vocational yearnings of the heart are things I’d been privileged to witness for many years. She was the last of several women over the years who sought sponsorship for holy orders while I was in my last parish.

I vividly recall the first one, Joanne, who joined the congregation in 1982, with the precondition I first share with her my view on women’s ordination.

“It’s a non-issue for me,” I simply said.

“That’s not good enough,” she shot back.

So I elaborated, “I don’t believe gender is a deal breaker for priesthood. With regard to any vocation, if it’s who you are, who you’re called to be, that’s the only issue.”

I could have elaborated further, based on my own personal experience, stating I could think of virtually nothing that was an automatic disqualifier. Time and again God opts for the outsider to deliver the word, and perceived losers to care for the lost. Why don’t we?

Almost three decades later, some people in the Church are still quarreling over archaic institutional standards of “un-acceptableness;” along with a radically rigid and fractured view of scriptural authority. Those who are precisely in a position of power and authority to do otherwise, opt instead to preserve the safeguards of some petrified plan of salvation. All such nonsense would all be downright silly, if it weren’t so sad.

And all the while, God proceeds instead to simply plant the Word in the wilderness; where the true heart of the matter can still be received and reside.

All such nonsense would all be downright silly, if it weren’t so sad. And all the while, God proceedsinstead to simply plant the Word in thewilderness; where the true heart of the matter can still reside.

In this sense, prophets are not so much aboutforetelling things to come, but things that have already come to pass – had we the ears to hear and eyes to see. Remember, John’s message was the reiteration one first delivered centuries before; about a new Jerusalem, a new heaven and a new earth, a way of the Lord that has yet to come to fulfillment.


In doing so, of course, prophets pay a price. As an old professor of mine once taught me, they are “those who are willing to tell us, at the risk of our displeasure, the secrets of our hearts.”

So it was that John the Baptist, with little to lose, lost his head as well; and had it served up on a silver platter when he risked the displeasure of Herodias, Herod and Salome.

Conventional wisdom tells us, the institution always wins; particularly when the game is played on their turf, and they make all the rules. Betting on wilderness prophets –and the message they risk everything to bring us –the odds are clearly stacked against you.

There’d be little reason to go with such unfavorable odds, if it weren’t the message. It’s a message that comes to us out of wilderness, to dwell amongst us, if we only have the

powerlessness to receive him.

© 2009 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved. This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

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Prelude to our Advent Worship

Ben Franklin said it well. “Serving God is doing good to others, but praying is thought an easier service, and therefore more generally chosen.”

These four Advent worship gatherings will be an opportunity to participate in that easier service to God – that of prayer. But I have found that prayer alone is good for little if it does not focus – or in the case of Advent, perhaps refocus – our wordsinto action. Contrary to popular opinion, I believe the efficacy in prayer is not about asking for things, often impossible or unnecessary things. It’s more like a self-reality check; where we prepare to re-engage ourselves in another reality than the illusory one into which we continuallytend to backslide when the watchword we call prayer is neglected.

As a matter of fact then, the deeper reality which we prepare now to recognize, observe and celebrate at the end of these four weeks is all about the Word becoming a living reality, and dwelling among us. We approach this time of Advent prayer and worship together; so that the words of our lips might direct the actions of our hands and feet.

The themes I’ve shaped for these four evenings together are intended to direct your attention outward to what we might do outside this hour and these four walls. It emerges out of my own peculiar understanding of human nature, being what it is; as well as a personal understanding of what is authentic about Christian faith, as it has shaped up in my own life, and up to this point in that personal pilgrimage. So with that I will develop four general themes:

First: Castaways in light armor: Humility in the face of our mortality, drawn from the Collect Prayer for Advent I.

Second: The Powerlessness of Prophets vs. Principalities & Powers: Un-favorable Odds and Risks with the Secrets of the Heart, drawn from the scripture texts about prophets.

Third: The Costliest Christmas: about a world, which is in desperate need of a different kind of excessiveness than one generally practiced during the holidays.

And fourth, on what is commonly referred to as “Mary’s Sunday,” about being hospitable in an inhospitable world: It’s about the art and craft of knowing when to accommodate, and when tostand your ground. Mary, mother of God, has something to say about that.

Now first:

Castaways in light armor: Humility in the face of our mortality
Give us grace, to cast away the
works of darkness, and put on the
armor of light, now in the time of this
mortal life in which Jesus the Christ
comes to visit us in great humility
that in the fullness of time, we may
more fully rise to immortal life.

This Collect Prayer for the first Sunday of Advent season reeks with such melodramatic language! It sounds more like the stuff of mythic legend, “casting off works of darkness,” with “armor of light,” isn’t exactly the most apt description of the way we would normally characterize the day-to¬day issues of our much more domesticated, pedestrian lives.

At the same time, there is an unmistakable, palpable sense of fear and foreboding in the air. The days are getting shorter and the night’s longer; and no matter what anyone says,everyone has – at one time or another – been scared of the dark. Besides, this is the onset of the season of SAD – seasonal affect disorder; whose affects may, in fact, be more contagious than any seasonal virus.

Granted, for some it’s only a slight problem. For instance the other day we learned from our daughter whom we call the Dog Whisperer, that Sally the golden retriever’s nose is turning from black to pink these days because the natural genetic pigmentation does not require the darker shade of protection from the hot summer sun. It’s not really a problem for Sally, and she doesn’t really care what she can’t see herself anyway. It’s a dog’s life, one way or another; which, for a dog, is just fine.


But for others of us, for one reason or another, it’s a time and a season for the works of darkness to seemingly run amuck.

This is the point where a preacher would typicallyfill in the blank, based on the particular “conditions on the ground.” In homiletics (preaching) we have a term for this. It’s sometimes referred to as the “category of vices;” the particular afflictions, social ills and infirmities that happen to beset us at any particular time.

The headlines are always full of such examples. That harvest is always plentiful. Take your pick: Big picture arms-length problems like Afghanistan, Pakistan, Iraq and Iran, the Korean peninsula, Darfur, worldwide pandemics that make H1N1 look like a sneeze, financial greed and corruption, the ensuing economic meltdown with the innocents caught in the mix, global environmental crises, etc, etc, ad infinitum. Here’s just one:

On Tuesday the President will presumably tell the American public how many more troops he will give his generals to wage war in Afghanistan; along with a rationale for doing so. Then competing polls will attempt to gauge the public’s reaction, while others tally the costs in terms of blood and treasure and political capital. It is the way of this world, it seems; the reality contending with the works of darkness run rampant in the world.

What would it then mean to instead be castaways, as we say in our prayer this evening? To cast off“works of darkness” and put on “armor of light,” as if our mortal life depended on it?

One might well consider a global war on terror as a conflict with the works of darkness. Certainlythere are the Darth Vaders out there; and with the military’s latest light sabers at the ready, conventional logic could persuade us we just need to persevere and escalate our efforts to rout out evil from wherever it lurks. That’s why we’ll shipadditional defense forces halfway around the world, and put more boots on the ground in a foreign, sovereign state; in order to protect our borders from the enemy’s ability to regroup and launch further attacks on the homeland.

The tragic irony, of course, is that the last extremist/fanatic to attack us on American soil allegedly turned out to be an American born medical professional within our own very military force itself; a psychiatrist trained to understand and treat the human psyche, whose job it was to debrief our foot soldiers returning home from battling the works of darkness abroad.

Now pointing fingers want to find out how warning signs –presumably so obvious to everyone in retrospect –were previously overlooked; along with the underlying assumption that if we can finally, once and for all, learn from our mistakes so that in the future we do everything right, nothing will ever go wrong again. And, part of that is about making sure everyone is sufficiently“enlightened;” so we can tell the difference between works of darkness and light before its too late. But the days are short. They’re always short.

How then does one contend with the works of darkness, if one only has light armor, or “light” armor?

The truth of the matter is, exposing the works of darkness to the light of day does not, in fact, vanquish the darkness. Just as merely pointing out what is ultimately true does not necessarilymake what is true prevail. Ignorance and brutality, it seems obvious to me, are blind and belligerent for a reason; and that reason just maynot be because they have not yet “seen the light.”

It is an inconvenient truth, for instance, that violence in any form only begets more violence. Engaging in acts of violence does not put an end to violence; but rather only quells violence, at best, as long as one of the two embattled parties has a bigger stick. It is the conventional compromise when confronting global terrorism, for instance. But such misrepresentation of this truth does more than fill coffins and drain the treasury coffers. It misleads us into believing something is the truth, when it is actually something less than the truth. The containment of violence by violent means can only masquerade as an often-promised “just and lasting peace.”

But here’s another truth, it seems to me. Light armor can’t hold a candle against the works of darkness. It is a losing proposition. And, as unwelcome a message as that may be to the impending days of holiday mirth and merriment that is nonetheless part of the message of Advent and this prayer. Not only are we invited to be castaways, equipped with little more than light armor that won’t afford us a triumphant victory over the “works of darkness.” We are also shown how to undertake such a losing proposition as imitators of the one who “came to visit us in great humility.”

Humility! Humility is offered up as our bestdefense, and our best offense, when neither strategy can triumph in the end; as if winning or losing isn’t the point.

I have found two paradoxical realities at the heart of a life of faith. The first one is about us. It is about what was once dubbed the paradox of the“fortunate fall” of humankind; wherein we not only accept our imperfection (and our mortality); but also come to realize our utter dependence on thesheer grace of God, and the redemptive life to be found once we’ve given up the illusory quest of self-salvation.

The second paradox is about what others have described as the “magnificent defeat” of God. And such a losing proposition does not end with God. For those who cannot conceive of our lives as being anywhere but in God, it is our defeat, as well.

If Advent is about preparation, I believe it is about preparing ourselves to recognize this revelatory truth when it comes to us. It is not simply the bargain we (knowingly or unknowingly) strike when we draw our first breath, and until our last. It is the good news that the One in whom our life is held “comes to visit us in great humility,” “now in the time of this mortal life.”

The Word made flesh is this truth for us to behold.

If the notion of even a magnificent defeat is an unwelcome proposition, consider this: life is a losing proposition. Try as we might to have it turn out any other way, mortal nature being what it is eventually brings us to this sobering conclusion. Each of us can ask ourselves: Who or what, in the end, will lead to our ultimate defeat. But we lose, one way or another. What then can we possibly gain, even more so with a magnificent defeat?

When Paul writes his letter to the early Church in Philippi, sitting in a prison cell in Rome, we can get an idea of what can be found in such defeat: “What is more, I consider everything a loss compared to the surpassing greatness of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord, for whose sake I have lost all things. I consider them rubbish, that I may gain Christ.” [Phil 3:8]

For those of us who’ve lived long enough to suffer a loss or two, we might end up asking ourselves where is the gain to be found in such defeat. It is only when one comes to see and know how one is lifted up, time and again, by the magnificence of God’s own humility, that one can consider all else to be “rubbish.” Humility then, as the Collect Prayer says, is the vulnerable, disarming, self-defeating manner in which Christ comes to dwell among us.

Humility is often given a bad rap. If it’s not cast in pious terms, as an endeavor reserved for the professionally religious, it’s just as often regarded negatively as either self-deprecation or false piety,

i.e. “I’m tops in humility!” Jesus had a penchant for pointing out such hypocrites. Humility is the opposite of pretense. Humility is simply the refusal to someone you are not, and accepting who you are, without pretense.

For those who remember (to my chagrin) the musical antics of Fr. Cowboy and the Buckaroos singing silly religious country western tunes a couple decades back, among the standards in my repertoire were the lyrics,

Oh Lord, it’s hard to be humble,
when you’re perfect in every way.
I can’t wait to look in the mirror, I
get better lookin’ each day, … etc.

As with most things, it’s always easier to describe what humility is not. But another song we’ll sing this evening gives us reason to so a little pondering about humility as an authentic way of for us to make our way through this world:

When Mary birthed Jesus ‘twas in a cows stall,
With wise men and farmers and shepherds and all.
But high from God’s heaven a star’s light did fall,
And the promise of ages it then did recall.
If Jesus had wanted for any wee thing,
A star in the sky or a bird on the wing,
Or all of God’s angels in heaven to sing,
he surely could have had it, ‘cuz he was a king.
So, I wonder as I wander out under the sky
Why Jesus the savior did come for to die
For poor ornery sinners like you and like I,
I wonder as I wander out under the sky.


The works of darkness run rampant, and we are called to be castaways in light armor. Time and again we will lose, going down to utter defeat along the way. We pray to accept such a proposition, knowing we can share in God’s magnificent defeat.

Many years ago F. Buechner wrote, “RememberJesus of Nazareth, staggering on broken feet outof the tomb toward the Resurrection, bearing on his body the proud insignia of the defeat … the magnificent defeat of the human soul at the hands of God.”

He wrote that line, preceded by this proposition, “Power and dominance can be grasped for a while by those who will fight for them hard enough; but peace, love, joy, are only from God…. “

To that list I would add another gift, if I can only accept it; the gift of humility. It is the magnificent defeat of the human heart at the hands of God.

© 2009 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved. This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

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Hospitality of the heart in an inhospitable world:

The Art and Craft of Accommodation, or Standing Firm

A Homily for the Fourth Sunday of Advent Season

Appointed text, for context:

In those days Mary set out and went with haste to a Judean town in the hill country, where sheentered the house of Zechariah and greeted Elizabeth. When Elizabeth heard Mary’s greeting, the child leaped in her womb. And Elizabeth was filled with the Holy Spirit and exclaimed with a loud cry, “Blessed are you among women, and blessed is the fruit of your womb.

And why has this happened to me,that the mother of my Lord comes to me? For as soon as I heard the sound of your greeting, the child in my womb leaped for joy. And blessed is she who believed that there would be a fulfillment of what was spoken to her by the Lord.”

And Mary said, “My soul magnifies the Lord, and my spirit rejoices in God my Savior, for he has looked with favor on the lowliness of his servant. Surely, from now on all generations will call me blessed; for the Mighty One has done great things for me, and holy is his name. His mercy is for those who fear him from generation to generation. He has shown strength with his arm; he has scattered the proud in the thoughts of their hearts. He has brought down the powerful from their thrones, and lifted up the lowly; he has filled the hungry with good things, and sent the rich away empty. He has helped his servant Israel,in remembrance of his mercy, according to the promise he made to our ancestors, to Abrahamand to his descendants forever.”

And Mary remained with her about three months and then returned to her home. Luke 1:39-56


Let’s summarize where we have come in our Advent journey this season, as a set-up for tonight’s comments. Looking back: The First Sunday in the Advent season I reflected on the bidding prayer to “put on the armor of light …” I spoke of being “Castaways in light armor: Humility in the face of our mortality”I suggested facing the hard truth of the matter. Exposing the works of darkness to the light of day does not, in fact, vanquish the darkness; just as merely pointing out what is ultimatelytrue does not necessarily make what is true prevail.

Ignorance and brutality are blind and belligerent for a reason; and that reason just may not be because the lost and wayward have not yet “seen the light.” In the pragmatic world in which we live, light armor can’t hold a candle against the works of darkness.

Yet we are also shown how to undertake such a losing proposition, as imitators of the one who “came to visit us in great humility.” Our God is a humble God, expressed in what Buechner once called the “magnificent defeat” of God: In this way, one might not only “cast off” works of darkness, but simple pretense as well; lack of pretense is a genuine form of humility.
The Second Sunday of Advent Season wasabout “unfavorable odds,” found in the powerlessness of prophets, compared with the “principalities and powers” of this world. I spoke about the message of prophets, who arewilling to tell us –at the risk of our displeasure

– some inconvenient truths about ourselves. And about a God who seems to have the a penchant for defying appropriate earthlyauthorities; in order to –time and again –leave the most important things in the hands of the last and least among us. This includes prophets from beyond the fringe, and again – in the case of this evening’s gospel story – a pregnant, virgin, peasant girl.

Conventional wisdom tells us, only important people are to be entrusted with the most important matters. Why? Because those in positions of power usually win; particularly when the game is played on their turf, and they make all the rules. Betting on wilderness prophets -¬and the message they risk everything to bring us –the odds are clearly stacked against you.

There’d be little reason to go with such unfavorable odds, if it weren’t the message. The message is about the Word of God that comes to us out of wilderness; to dwell amongst us, if we only have the powerlessness to receive him.

The Third Sunday of Advent Season was about exceeding all expectations of what gifts I might give and receive this year, and about the “costliest Christmas.”

I calculated that the cost of showering my beloved with pricey gifts – one each for the traditional twelve days of Christmas –putting me back over $87,000; but that would still pale in comparison to something anyone can give that costs nothing, but everything.

Then I considered John the Baptist’s announcement; one that might sound like divine retribution – about the viper’s brood and a winnowing fork of judgment; but is instead more a message of redistribution in these recessionary times; when what will come, with “fire and Spirit,” is a winnowing fork. A winnowing fork: the means by which all that is valuable and worthwhile might be separated from all the chaff, the clutter and the crap. Then the costliest Christmas everyone can afford can be where we give of our true selves.

This evening’s homily continues to draw on many of these ideas now, as we reflect on the “handmaiden of God,” the art and craft ofaccommodation, and knowing when to stand firm.
In November, there was a furious dust-up in American conservative circles when Pres Obama took a deep bow before Japan’s Emperor Akihito. The criticism accused our Commander in Chief of groveling to a foreign leader. To add further insult, it was this emperor’s father who’d ruled Japan in 1941, when Pearl Harbor was attacked.

While apparently intended as a gesture ofrespect on the part of the President, what was interpreted by his critics was a form of weakness; and, in turn, a denigration of America’s position of power and dominance in the world. As leader of the free world, so the argument went, the U.S. should not subordinate itself to any other foreign leader or nation.

A month later, Obama was in Oslo, accepting the Nobel Peace prize. He readilyacknowledged both his lack of accomplishment thus far in the peace-making arena; and the seeming irony of having just announced his decision to escalate U.S. military operations in Afghanistan.

NY Times columnist, David Brooks, wrote an astute editorial, pointing out the carefully crafted reasoning of the President’s thinking in the acceptance speech he delivered in Oslo. Brooks observed that Obama had seemed to have embraced the mid-20th Century notion advanced by theologian Reinhold Niebuhr, known as “Christian realism,’ which goes a little like this:

Each person is part angel, part devil. Life is a struggle to push back against the evils of the world without succumbing to the passions of the beast lurking inside oneself. So as you act to combat evil, you don’t want to get carried away by your own righteousness, or be seduced by the belief that you are innocent. Even fighting evil can be corrupting.

The columnist went on to quote part of a 2007 speech, in which Obama reflected Niebuhr’s thinking: “I take away the compelling idea that there’s serious evil in the world and hardshipand pain. And we should be humble and modest in our belief we can eliminate those things. But we shouldn’t use that as an excuse for cynicism and inaction.”

Then, as recently as Obama’s speeches at West Point and in Oslo, the President talked about the “core struggle of human nature” between love and evil, and the high ideals of the human rights. He talked about America’s “strategic interest in binding ourselves to certain rules of conduct.” He talked about the need to balance the moral obligation to champion freedom, while not getting swept up in self-destructive fervor. Most of all, Brooks noted, this powerful man talked about the paradox at the core of cold war liberalism, of the need to balance “two seemingly irreconcilable truths” — that war is both folly and necessary.”

These two incidents, separated by only a wrinkle in time – Obama’s self-denigrating bow, then his muscle-flexing –illustrates the art and craft of accommodation on the one hand; and an arbitrary determination when to draw a line in the sand and stand firm, on the other.

Now, where it clearly appears the difficult task and challenge for important figures of human history to hone such skills, what about personsof much more modest means in the humblest of circumstances; for those who – by all outward appearances – have little influence to shape the world around them, and little to lose in their powerless lot in life?

I thought about these two news stories this Advent season, in the context of our waiting expectation and preparation, considering how Christ might come into this world and into our lives in a new way; that Christmas might be more than simply the reenactment of all our old cherished traditions that are once again hauled out, set up for a time, then taken down again, packed up and tucked out of sight. And, in doing so, this duality and tension between accommodation and standing firm brought me around to thinking about Mary.

The Virgin Mary, “handmaiden of God,” that human vessel by which God presumably and decisively entered into the affairs of human history; without the taint of human sin and the defilement by which you and I came into this world in our messy, swaddling clothes. That is one traditional view of Mary, her role and function. In such a portrayal, her significance – and therefore her credibility –hinges on the biological conundrum of an immaculate conception.

To be honest, the whole idea of a virgin birth has never been all that impressive, nor persuasive, to my way of thinking. First of all,any human parent that has ever participated in the act of co-creation has inescapably found themselves bound up in an experience that is sufficiently miraculous. Furthermore, it seems to me one can accept the deeper messagebehind the myth; just as when God creates human form to begin with, out of nothing more than a lump of clay and Spirit.

But moreover, the mytho-poetic tale of a human/divine union is not only a religious doctrine that is hardly unique to Christianity; it is an unnecessary distraction. It’s a red herring. The importance of Miryam giving birth to a son she names Jeshua (in the original Aramaic) has less to do with her maidenhood, and more to do with her message. It has to do with who she is, and the song she sings.

The importance of Miryam giving birth to a son she names Jeshua has less to do with her maidenhood, and more todo with her message. It has to do with who she is, and the song she sings.

The first thing to appreciate about Miryam is who she is, her personhood. She was a real,live human being; set in a certain time and place in human history. That simple fact gets lost to a beatific persona that too often places her in a pure and privileged class, it seems to me; somewhere above the archangels, cherubim and seraphim, slightly below the right hand of God Almighty. If you can’t get throughto the Father through the Son, a whole prayer tradition suggests, maybe the BVM can intercede on your behalf. The risk is makingher out to be someone other than who she is.

Trying to imagine Maryam is a little like the little controversy I read recently about the branding makeover that’s been given to the Sunmaid Raisin girl. Remember what she used to look like on the boxes we’d find packed in our school lunches? The news report ran as follows:

“Sun-Maid recently decided to join Betty Crocker, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth’s in giving the female face of their product a substantial makeover from a young, early20th-century girl into a buxom, modern young woman, leading some to say that the newlymade-over raisin girl looks like a Barbie Doll in Amish attire. … The new computer-animated version of the Sun-Maid girl currently featured in television advertisements is a departure from the classic design.”

Fact is, according to the company’s website, the Sun-Maid maiden was a real young woman, named Lorraine Collett Petersen. She was discovered in 1915, while drying her black hair curls in the sunny backyard of her parents’ home in Fresno, California. She was then asked to pose for a watercolor painting, while holding a basket of grapes while wearing a sunbonnet. The practice is not unique.The French government recently went so far as to propose restricting their fashion industry from computer-enhanced alterations in model’s photos; where impossible and unrealistic emaciated ideals were promulgated. That’s advertising for you, one might say. But when it comes to Mary, who had no pretense of posing otherwise, perhaps we shouldn’t think of her as anything or anyone other than who, in fact, she was.

Closer to home, I think of an entire generation of young girls who, year after year, vied to play the part of Mary in the parish Christmas pageant. Year after year at the holidays Kathy worked two jobs; dashing between herbackstage work at the SF Ballet’s Nutcracker performances, then gathering together the parish children and their costumes; casting donkeys and sheep, shepherds, king, Joseph and Mary. God bless her!

The biggest question each year was whether we’d have a real live baby, born close enough to time of the performance; then borrowed formthe parish breeding stock for a few minutes during the gradual hymn and the reading of the gospel nativity narrative on Christmas Eve.

Some years were barren, and a real virgin playing the part of Mary ended up with a towel, rolled up inside a towel, wrapped in a swaddling cloth.


Other years a young nervous mother would sit in the front pew, and reluctantly accommodate us for a few minutes, placing her little miracle in the cradling arms of a pre-pubescent girl.

After all, how could you pass up the chance to let your young prodigy portray the Son of God.

But again, the importance of Miryam has less to do with her maidenhood, and more to do with her message. There is this far more radical view of this character that the gospel writer would have us see; if we would only draw back the veil of purity rites and sweet sentimentality.

Robert Cromey, an old colleague, retired Episcopal priest, social activist and proud thorn in the side of ecclesiastical authority, recentlywrote in his blog:

What is the oldest Christmas Carol? It’s not Silent Night, written in1792; nor Adeste Fidelis, written in 1711; nor even Of the Father’s Love Begotten, dated 348 C.E. No, the oldest Christmas carol was written 2000 years ago by a powerless, penniless, illiterate Jewish pregnant peasant girl. Her song is the Magnificat.

Indeed, the Magnificat, sung by Mary as the culmination of our Advent preparation for the Word to become living flesh is a subversive manifesto that would become the message of her itinerant rabbi son, and (presumably) the gospel of Christian faith and practice.

The Magnificat … is a subversivemanifesto that would become the message of her itinerant rabbi son, and (presumably) the gospel of Christian faith and practice.

She begins her song gently praising God for the great things God has done; and with genuine humility, giving thanks to God for the un¬likeliness of her being chosen. But then the pitch rises, as her lungs fill and her emboldened voice speaks in such a way that it should have rattled the halls of power.

Lifting up the lowly, she proclaims, God does great things. The proud are “scattered,” along with the “imaginations” – the secrets –of their hearts. Those who rule from lofty places are humbled, and those who once had it all learn what it is to have nothing. What’s more, that impoverishment might be their salvation.

As Luke spins the tale, Mary and Joseph will next travel to Bethlehem because the empire has decreed a census shall be undertaken. I don’t know if her gynecologist instructed her not to travel, but the empire accommodates no one. When she goes into labor they resort to a cave or a cow stable, or some such inhospitable place; because there were no accommodations available at the local inn. It is an inhospitable world out there.

No matter. Mary has already mastered the artand craft of accommodation. She will soon flee to Egypt for a time with her newborn. She will return sometime later, so her son Jeshua might become an itinerant rabbi for a few years. He’ll play a cat and mouse game with the ecclesiastical authorities and political powers for a brief while, then lose. And Mary will find herself standing firm at the foot of the cross, that losing proposition and magnificent defeat.

It is an inhospitable world out there. No matter. Mary has already masteredthe art and craft of accommodation. She will soon flee … for a time … And Mary will find herself standing firm at the foot of the cross, that losingproposition and magnificent defeat.

In a way, the whole tale begins with Maryam and her song; when she relents and relinquishes herself to the Spirit. It is a Spirit that not only blesses her own willing accommodation; but –of even greater significance –gives her voice to stand firm against the transitory powers of this world, with a song and a message.

It is the message of accommodation and conviction we find expressed in the words of the two old Advent prayers that began and end our journey. That our God will come to “visit us in great humility,” and “dwell among us.” If, and when, he might “find in us a mansion prepared for him.”

© 2009 by John William Bennison, Rel.D. All rights reserved.
This article may not be used or reproduced without proper credit.

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