Being at home before getting there

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation.

The poetry of Advent invites us to stand on the tip of our toes, our eyes raised with expectation, our parched souls ready to drink and enjoy life’s restoration from the deep wells of God. In exile, the prophet sings of homecoming. In deep  darkness, the prophet sings of light. In a culture of injustice and oppression, the prophet sings of freedom and righteousness.

The lame shall leap like a deer,

and the tongue of the speechless sing for joy.

For waters shall break forth in the wilderness,

and streams in the desert;

the burning sand shall become a pool,

and the thirsty ground springs of water.[1]

When the poor and needy seek water,

and there is none,

and their tongue is parched with thirst,

the Lord will answer them,

I the God of Israel will not forsake them.

I will open rivers on the bare heights,

and fountains in the midst of valleys;

I will make the wilderness a pool of water,

and the dry land springs of water.[2]

I will pour water on the thirsty land,

and streams on the dry ground;

I will pour my spirit upon your descendants,

and my blessing on your offspring.[3]

Ho, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters;

and you that have no money, come, buy and eat![4]

In the midst of exile — with all its physical, emotional, and spiritual trauma — the prophet sings the promises of God and invites the exiles to sing along, celebrating Israel’s repeated experiences of God’s deliverance.

With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation, because God is faithful. With joy, so don’t let your mortal flesh keep silent! Sing the river in the desert. Sing the light in the night. Sing of home on the road.

“We carry inside us a vision of wholeness that we sense is our true home that beckons us,” wrote Frederick Buechner. The prophets of Advent give voice to that vision and our musicians give it melody – for us to sing and sway and join the procession home. “To be homeless the way people like you and me are apt to be homeless,” wrote Buechner, “is to have homes all over the place but not really to be at home in any of them. To be really at home is to be really at peace, and our lives are so intricately interwoven that there can be no peace for any of us until there is real peace for all of us.”[5]

Real peace. Intricately interwoven lives of righteousness. The home that love builds. Paul wrote about it. He sat in a prison cell facing capital charges, and he wrote a letter to his friends in Philippi, his siblings in Christ who courageously lived and proclaimed the gospel of life in a hostile environment. He sat in a prison cell knowing that he might die soon, concerned about his friends, knowing that they were worried about him and about the church.

“Even if I am being poured out as a libation,”  — he speaks of his own possible execution here — “even if I am being poured out as a libation over the sacrifice and the offering of your faith, I am glad and rejoice with all of you—and in the same way you also must be glad and rejoice with me.”[6]

Joy is woven through the text of Paul’s letter from jail to the church in Philippi like a string of Christmas lights through the branches of a tree. Joy shines forth throughout. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice.” Always, at all times, regardless of circumstances: Rejoice!

The good news of the world’s redemption in Christ has become Paul’s life. He knows that Christ has made him his own and that is all that matters anymore. They can lock him up and throw away the key; they can beat him, they can even execute him – nothing they do can change or undo what God has done in Christ. The horizon of Paul’s world – whether he is on board a ship on the vast ocean or confined to a cell – the ultimate horizon of Paul’s world is the love of God. That is where he lives now, nowhere else. He doesn’t worry about anything. The Lord is near. The peace of God is guarding his heart and mind. Paul knows something about being at home before getting there. He knows that in Christ, God came to complete the journey with us.

These are times when we feel homeless like we haven’t in a long time, mostly because we have run out of ways to guard our hearts and minds ourselves, and anxiety has crept in. Paul tells us, Do not worry about anything; not because there is nothing to worry about or because the things we do worry about are unimportant. Rather he wants us to inhabit the wide horizon of God’s love and to place our anxieties, fears, and concerns in the context of our relationship with God who raised Jesus from the dead. For him, the cross marks the center of reality and the resurrection the hope of all whom Christ has made his own. Paul knows something about being at home before getting there. “For Paul, the Lord is near in two ways,” wrote David Bartlett.

The Lord is near, present, close at hand, even in the difficult times of imprisonment. The Lord is near in the comfort of the Spirit, in the loving prayers of other believers, in the astonishing fact that Paul’s imprisonment actually fosters the spread of the Gospel. For the Philippians, the Lord is also near, working reconciliation, strengthening prayer, deepening love - even if life is not invariably comfortable or physically secure. The Lord is also near because Paul believes the Lord will soon come again, and in that coming those who are faithful will be justified and those who ignore or persecute the faithful will be judged. For Paul, joy is closely tied to hope. Because we have confident hope in God’s vindication of God’s cause we can rejoice even when happiness seems a remote memory or a foolish dream.[7]

A week ago yesterday, a special mass was held in Oran, Algeria, celebrating the beatification of six women and thirteen men who were killed between 1993 and 1996, while Algeria was locked in a 10-year civil war between the government and a ruthless Islamic insurgency. Among the martyrs were seven Trappist monks — Fathers Christophe, Bruno, Celestin and Christian as well as Brothers Luc, Michel and Paul — who were kidnapped and murdered in 1996 by members of the Groupe Islamique Armé.[8] On Christmas Eve 1993, six armed members of the group entered the monastery in Thibhirine where they lived. One of the six, the leader, was responsible for the beheading of 12 foreign workers in a nearby town, a couple of weeks earlier. Father Christian de Chergė, the prior, talked to the man, reminding him of the monks’ commitment to peace and refusing any attempts by the Islamic militants to draw them into collaboration. Eventually the six left, promising to come back.

As a child, Father Christian had lived in Algeria while his father, a ranking officer in the French military, was stationed there. His mother had taught him to respect Muslims as people of faith, and he developed a deep and lasting belief in kinship between Muslims and Christians.

When he became a monk, he recognized the commonalities between the monastic life and the villagers’ practice of Islam: a commitment to regular prayer, times of fasting and penance, the high premium placed on hospitality, and an ethos of submission to the will of God. The villagers saw the same commonalities in the monks: in the villagers’ eyes, the monks were good Muslims.

After Christmas 1993, there were several attempts by the Algerian government and church authorities to offer the monks refuge or provide them with a military presence, but the community rejected the proposals. Instead they reaffirmed their commitment to remain at Tibhirine as witnesses for peace and companions in solidarity with the local Muslim villagers.

On March 27, 1996 the monks were abducted by the Groupe Islamique Armé, and on May 21, 1996, the group announced the beheadings of Father Christian and six of his brothers. A few days later, his mother opened a sealed letter he had written three years earlier, anticipating his own death. I want to share with you excerpts from this letter:

If it should happen one day—and it could be today—that I become a victim of the terrorism which now seems ready to engulf all the foreigners living in Algeria, I would like my community, my Church and my family to remember that my life was GIVEN to God and to this country. … I have lived long enough to know that I am an accomplice in the evil which seems to prevail so terribly in the world, even in the evil which might blindly strike me down.

I should like, when the time comes, to have the moment of lucidity which would allow me to beg forgiveness of God and of my fellow human beings, and at the same time to forgive with all my heart the one who would strike me down. I could not desire such a death. It seems important to state this. I do not see, in fact, how I could rejoice if the people I love were to be accused indiscriminately of my murder. To owe it to an Algerian, whoever he may be, would be too high a price to pay for what will, perhaps, be called, the ‘grace of martyrdom,’ especially if he says he is acting in fidelity to what he believes to be Islam.

I am aware of the scorn which can be heaped on Algerians indiscriminately. I am also aware of the caricatures of Islam which a certain Islamism encourages. It is too easy to salve one’s conscience by identifying this religious way with the fundamentalist ideologies of extremists. …

This is what I shall be able to do, if God wills—immerse my gaze in that of the Father, and contemplate with him his children of Islam just as he sees them, all shining with the glory of Christ, the fruit of his passion, and filled with the gift of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playfully delighting in the differences.[9]

Father Christian had the courage to love deeply, because the vision of wholeness that beckoned him was the life of God. He simply participated in the movement of the Spirit, whose secret joy will always be to establish communion and to refashion the likeness, playfully deligthing in the differences.

With joy he drew water from the wells of salvation even when terror and death appeared to reign. Like Paul, he knew something about being at home before getting there.

[1] Isaiah 35:6-7

[2] Isaiah 41:17-20

[3] Isaiah 44:3

[4] Isaiah 55:1

[5] Frederick Buechner, The Longing for Home: Recollections and Reflections (New York: HarperCollins, 1996), pp. 110 and 140

[6] Philippians 2:17f

[7] David Bartlett, “Rejoice in the Lord Always,” The Living Pulpit 5, no. 4 (October 1996), 14.

[8] http://www.catholicnews.com/services/englishnews/2018/simple-christians-ordinary-trappist-martyrs-gave-extraordinary-witness.cfm; their story was told in the film “Of Gods and Men.”

[9] Karl A. Plank, “Muslim neighbors,” The Christian Century, December 12, 2006, pp. 10-11 and https://www.americamagazine.org/content/all-things/dom-christians-testament

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