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What if the Messiah were among us?

December 10, 2007

The Backseat Homilist

Readings for the second Sunday of Advent

There is perhaps no better poet of humanity’s longing for peace, justice and an end to suffering than Isaiah. His vision for what that hope looks like is stunning: the savior that Israel earnestly awaits will come like a tender shoot pushing up from a dead stump. He will usher in a time of peace so complete even the natural law of tooth and claw will be abolished.

Fast-forward to John the Baptist as recounted in Matthew’s gospel and the image of the Messiah takes further shape: the one who will usher in the long expected Reign of God will sort the wheat from the chaff, baptizing with the Holy Spirit and fire.

In either vision it doesn’t pay to be ruthless or wicked or to be a fruitless Pharisee, more concerned about heritage than a life lived justly.

Time and again, the Advent scriptures juxtapose the prophetic vision of the Messiah with the Jesus of the Gospels, one who was not swayed by appearances or hierarchical standing, one who tipped the balance of power by offering forgiveness to the terminally un-favored and salvation to any who would like to meet his Father.

But the great day of peace and the billow of the winnowing fan — those parts we still wait for. It’s been nearly 2,800 years since Isaiah articulated that fantastic vision. Lions still eat lambs anytime they get the chance. The wicked and the pharisee are still among us. In an era that likes results, our vision can take a bit of a beating.

I wonder if the current holiday seasons’ requisite merry-ness and jolly-ness, with all its tinsel and fake snow and bright wrapping paper, is just a cheap cover for the fact that we may have lost faith in the original vision. At the very least we may have forgotten how to yearn for the promised prince of peace; we may have forgotten the art of waiting for the messiah; we may have forgotten how to imagine him among us.

John Shea reminds us that that the art of being people of the middle, caught between the now and the not yet, is contained in our ability to tell “stories of God.”

So here’s a story that I think restores a bit of imagination to the Advent practice of looking Jesus-ward, whether the glance be backward or sideways or up ahead. This is M. Scott Peck’s version of the story, “The Rabbi’s Gift” as he tells it in the prologue of The Different Drum: Community Making and Peace .The story concerns a monastery that had fallen upon hard times. Once a great order, as a result of waves of antimonastic persecution in the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries and the rise of secularism in the nineteenth, all its branch houses were lost and it had become decimated to the extent that there were only five monks left in the decaying mother house: the abbot and four others, all over seventy in age. Clearly it was a dying order.

In the deep woods surrounding the monastery there was a little hut that a rabbi from a nearby town occasionally used for a hermitage. Through their many years of prayer and contemplation the old monks had become a bit psychic, so they could always sense when the rabbi was in his hermitage. “The rabbi is in the woods, the rabbi is in the woods again ” they would whisper to each other. As he agonized over the imminent death of his order, it occurred to the abbot at one such time to visit the hermitage and ask the rabbi if by some possible chance he could offer any advice that might save the monastery.

The rabbi welcomed the abbot at his hut. But when the abbot explained the purpose of his visit, the rabbi could only commiserate with him. “I know how it is,” he exclaimed. “The spirit has gone out of the people. It is the same in my town. Almost no one comes to the synagogue anymore.” So the old abbot and the old rabbi wept together. Then they read parts of the Torah and quietly spoke of deep things. The time came when the abbot had to leave. They embraced each other. “It has been a wonderful thing that we should meet after all these years, “the abbot said, “but I have still failed in my purpose for coming here. Is there nothing you can tell me, no piece of advice you can give me that would help me save my dying order?”

“No, I am sorry,” the rabbi responded. “I have no advice to give. The only thing I can tell you is that the Messiah is one of you.”

When the abbot returned to the monastery his fellow monks gathered around him to ask, “Well what did the rabbi say?” “He couldn’t help,” the abbot answered. “We just wept and read the Torah together. The only thing he did say, just as I was leaving –it was something cryptic– was that the Messiah is one of us. I don’t know what he meant.”

In the days and weeks and months that followed, the old monks pondered this and wondered whether there was any possible significance to the rabbi’s words. The Messiah is one of us? Could he possibly have meant one of us monks here at the monastery? If that’s the case, which one? Do you suppose he meant the abbot? Yes, if he meant anyone, he probably meant Father Abbot. He has been our leader for more than a generation. On the other hand, he might have meant Brother Thomas. Certainly Brother Thomas is a holy man. Everyone knows that Thomas is a man of light. Certainly he could not have meant Brother Elred! Elred gets crotchety at times. But come to think of it, even though he is a thorn in people’s sides, when you look back on it, Elred is virtually always right. Often very right. Maybe the rabbi did mean Brother Elred. But surely not Brother Phillip. Phillip is so passive, a real nobody. But then, almost mysteriously, he has a gift for somehow always being there when you need him. He just magically appears by your side. Maybe Phillip is the Messiah. Of course the rabbi didn’t mean me. He couldn’t possibly have meant me. I’m just an ordinary person. Yet supposing he did? Suppose I am the Messiah? O God, not me. I couldn’t be that much for You, could I?

As they contemplated in this manner, the old monks began to treat each other with extraordinary respect on the off chance that one among them might be the Messiah. And on the off-off chance that each monk himself might be the Messiah, they began to treat themselves with extraordinary respect.

Because the forest in which it was situated was beautiful, it so happened that people still occasionally came to visit the monastery to picnic on its tiny lawn, to wander along some of its paths, even now and then to go into the dilapidated chapel to meditate. As they did so, without even being conscious of it, they sensed the aura of extraordinary respect that now began to surround the five old monks and seemed to radiate out from them and permeate the atmosphere of the place. There was something strangely attractive, even compelling, about it. Hardly knowing why, they began to come back to the monastery more frequently to picnic, to play, to pray. They began to bring their friends to show them this special place. And their friends brought their friends.

Then it happened that some of the younger men who came to visit the monastery started to talk more and more with the old monks. After a while one asked if he could join them. Then another. And another. So within a few years the monastery had once again become a thriving order and, thanks to the rabbi’s gift, a vibrant center of light and spirituality in the realm.

This is a perfect Advent story – right up there with Isaiah and Matthew. It offers the same challenge: do we have it in us to accept the gift of living “as though” the Messiah is among us instead of waiting for absolute proof that the anointed one is here?

What would a life lived this way look like? What fruit would it bear?

I believe this is the kind of spiritual practice that is behind the ability to walk to the cross, knowing paradise is on the other side. It’s fosters the kind of conviction that thwarts despair despite the conventional wisdom that evil has the upper hand. At the very least, in the shallow end of the holiday season, it inspires the confidence that allows one to put aside the soul-deadening consumerism and the hyped up holiday fictions, expecting that there will be something worth celebrating in the meaner story that remains: the one where God enters the world naked, poor and defenseless and trusts us to receive him with the kind of love that allows the Messiah ever to be found among us.

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