Advent, the season that proceeds Christmas, is a time of waiting, preparing, anticipating, and hoping. Yet it is understood very differently depending on where you are standing.
Advent in Auckland’s St Luke’s shopping mall involves hearing the piped carols, waiting in queues, buying little gifts and food in preparation for Christmas, and anticipating celebrating with family and friends. You hope that gifts, giving, and eating will bring happiness to the lives of others, and to your own.
If you have been standing in Gaza city in recent weeks, hearing the whine of Israeli drones, the waiting, preparing and anticipation of Advent has a very different meaning. You wait for the noise of impact. You prepare mentally and physically for safety of those you love. You anticipate both the best and the worst. You hope it will end, and you will be alive. Christmas can’t come soon enough - for maybe on that day no one will be killed.
If you are standing in another Auckland queue, waiting for a WINZ [Work and Income] interview, preparing to look and sound like you could do any job, anticipating the worst and vainly hoping for the best, the approach of Christmas with its financial expectations is daunting. You hope that somehow your children will not be too disappointed. You hope that the tears in your heart will not seep through your eyes.
Each place of standing has fears and hopes. Each place asks us to be faithful to life, and to act with generosity and integrity. In each place we dream of a future that is good for all.
The context of Advent reflected in the biblical stories of John the Baptist is closest to Gaza than St Luke’s or WINZ.
The land of Palestine was occupied by a foreign army, the Romans. The occupiers used brutal force and its threat to elicit crippling taxes, and to suppress any dissent. The Romans also cultivated puppet rulers, like Herod, to oversee local bureaucracy. The purpose was always power and wealth. The means was always violence and fear.
The people of Palestine reacted to the occupation in different ways. Some joined bands of insurrectionists led by charismatic figures who claimed to be the hoped-for messiah. The insurrectionists fought and lost, and fought and lost, again and again.
Other Palestinians followed apocalyptic prophets [as known in the Jewish tradition], who announced the end was nigh for the Romans and a heavenly messiah with a heavy sword would shortly deal to the invaders. Such prophets often formed large movements. John was one such prophet.
The references in the John Baptist stories to the Jordan and to the wilderness are not references to water and desert. Rather they are pointers to the historical and political works and words of Moses and Joshua. They are about crossing over the Jordan from the wilderness and taking by conquest the Promised Land. John and others of his ilk were proposing a similar conquest or re-conquest of Israel.
John’s strategy was to form a system of sanctified individuals, a huge web of end-time expectations, and a network of ticking time-bombs of resistance all over the Jewish homeland. These individuals were to wait until the avenging messiah arrived, and then they would join his army. Herod Antipas killed John for being a political threat rather than for upsetting his family.
The waiting, preparation, anticipation, and hope around Advent therefore centred on political-religious salvation from the occupying power. Advent was waiting for a killing saviour, preparing to overthrow the invaders, anticipating the theocracy they would establish in Rome’s absence, and hoping that all this would happen soon.
Whilst there are differences, the similarities with the Israeli Government [like Rome] occupying the lands that once belonged to Palestinians, and the reactions of groups like Hamas and Fatah to the military might of Israel are somewhat familiar.
The latest Israeli Defense Force assault on Gaza, in addition to its targeted assassinations against political as well as military opponents, is horrifying and disturbing. It threatened to escalate into yet another cycle of violence and war-making.
The root problem in Israel-Palestine remains occupation and the denial of statehood, justice, equal rights, resources and dignity to Palestine alongside Israel. This occupation and denial creates instability and insecurity for everyone concerned, feeding fear and conflict. Killing people does not create peace.
While there is violence and extremism on both sides the all-too-easy language of equivalence masks a massive military and political power imbalance between the 'sides', and failures to acknowledge the historical injustices. Indeed it is misleading simply to speak of 'Israelis versus Palestinians'. The real confrontation is between those who believe in justice for all and those who, in practice, do not. [i]
This then is the messy context of a Gaza Advent: waiting for a two-state solution, hoping that there is political will to create it and make it work, preparing for however the likelihood that the will is not there, and anticipating ongoing violence. Hope is a very fragile thing.
The incarnation of God that Christians celebrate at Christmas is symbolized in a fragile baby. Fragility is at the heart of God’s response to conflict.
As John the Baptist might have discovered prior to his beheading, there was no killing saviour who would arrive to oust the invaders and establish a theocracy. There was only a rabbi who would welcome nuisances and nobodies – including a Roman officer’s servant.
The apocalyptic visions of Ezekiel and Daniel, reformatted by Christians in the Book of Revelations, would not come to pass. There would be no massive military victory and bloodbath. There was only a rabbi who would make himself vulnerable, crossing social boundaries to welcome and listen to outsiders.
Violence might change the balance of political power but it does not create peace. For peace needs the foundation of trust; and trust needs to be earned by convincing hearts and minds. What the rabbi from Nazareth did was to try and build a community of individuals committed to an alternate way of living and being. As our liturgy today puts it:
[Jesus] initiated a new community, an upside-down community which believes that loving is more important than winning, doing what is right is more important than doing what is safe, and setting people free is more important than trying to control their lives. [ii]
It was a fragile community. A vulnerable one. And a community that in the early centuries did not believe in engaging in armed conflict.
Last week I was reading again James K Baxter’s Jerusalem Daybook, the spirituality of which was part of my formation in the late 1970s. Baxter formed a community of misfits on the side of the Wanganui River at Jerusalem. He writes:
I do not relish the role of David in confronting that Goliath who numbs the soul wherever he touches it. But I find myself curiously, perhaps absurdly, cast in that role. And the five water-worn stones I choose from the rives, to put in my sling, are five spiritual aspects of Maori communal life –
Arohanui: The Love of the Many;
Manuhiritanga: hospitality to the guest and the stranger;
Korero: speech that begets peace and understanding;
Matewa: the night life of the soul;
Mahi: work undertaken from communal love.
I do not know what the outcome of the battle will be.
My aim may be poor.
But I think my weapons are well chosen.
So standing in the mess of a Gaza Advent, speaking naively in the face of the propaganda promulgated by those who think killing creates security and who fear the loss of their power, let us offer the wisdom of a fragile community and its founder. For our hopes and prayers seem powerless like a David before the massive reality of the Goliath war machine and its financiers. Yet naively we offer, in the strength of community, indiscriminate and costly love, prayer, and work.
Again as the liturgy says:
Recalling the promise of tomorrow we wait out the long night of struggle,
Remembering our brother Jesus, our sister Mary, and all our spiritual forbears,
Rejoicing in the bonds of solidarity…
We take, eat and drink, knowing that the Spirit of God is here within and among us.