Readings for Third Sunday in Advent: IS 61:1-2A, 10-11; LK 1: 46-50; 53-54; I THES 5: 16-24; JN 1: 6-8, 19-28.
Three years ago, I had an important spiritual experience that's relevant to today's liturgy of the word. I had the privilege of visiting the hermitage of St. Thomas Merton, the great Trappist mystic. (See my reflections here.)
It all happened in New Haven, Kentucky, just down the road from the Maker's Mark distillery -- far from any great urban centers and nearer to places with names like Bardstown, Paint Lick, and Gravel Switch. The experience inspired counter-cultural thoughts about Christmas. It made me struggle with the question (still unresolved for me): is it possible to once and for all break with this annual orgy of consumerism so counter to the gospel's commitment to the poor?
At Fr. Louis' Gethsemane, twenty of us sat in a circle in his living room absorbing the Life Force that still hovers over his simple cinderblock cabin. Trappist Brother Paul, the convener of the Merton Study Group responsible for the event, marvelously channeled "Louie's" spirit by reading Brother Paul's own poetic reflection on Matthew's words, "Blessed are the poor in spirit."
Paul's thoughts connected nicely not only with Merton, but with this morning's readings for this third Sunday of Advent. There, John the Baptizer, his predecessor Isaiah, and Jesus' own mother Mary reiterate the essential connection between Jesus' gospel and standing in solidarity with the poor not only in spirit, but in actual fact. As Christmas approaches, the sentiments of the Baptizer, Isaiah and Mary suggest counter-cultural ways of commemorating the birth of the prophet from Nazareth. I wish I and my family were strong enough to entertain them seriously.
For me those culturally eccentric suggestions began emerging when in the course of his remarks, Brother Paul recalled Sister Emily Dickinson's words that reflect the mystical dimension of Matthew's (and presumably Jesus') understanding of both spiritual and physical poverty. As for the former, Brother Paul defined spiritual poverty as the emptiness reflected in Monk Dickinson's words,
"I am nobody.
Who are you?
Are you nobody too?
. . . How dreary to be somebody."
Those words almost paraphrase what John the Baptist says in today's Gospel selection. When asked who he is, the one identified by Jesus as the greatest man who ever lived (MT 11:11) says in effect, I am a poor man in Emily Dickinson's sense. I'm a nobody -- merely a voice out of nowhere. I am "a voice crying out in the wilderness." Only an empty vessel can be filled with the Holy Spirit.
So forget about me, John says, and focus on the one who is to come. His words will set you on fire that will sear everything in you that is not of the Spirit Jesus embodies -- everything that separates you from your brothers and sisters, especially material wealth. That kind of self-denial and openness to Jesus' Holy Spirit is the very definition of Matthew's spiritual poverty.
And the specific message of the One to come? (And here's where material poverty enters the picture.) Jesus announces the Divine Spirit's preferential option for the actually poor and its rejection of the materially rich. That bias towards the actually poor is reflected in today's first reading. As remembered by Luke in Jesus' preview of his own career, the words of the prophet Isaiah read:
"The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord's favor." (LK 4: 16-22)
Here Jesus' focus is real poverty and people subject to captivity and oppression.