In a recent talk, Sister Diane Bergant chided those who use Advent to prepare for the birth of the baby Jesus. "That baby's already been born," she reminded her audience. "He grew up, was killed and rose from the dead. Our Advent readings proclaim the freeing of a helpless people, the people Jesus of Nazareth came to set free."
The theme of freedom runs throughout our sacred writings. In the Hebrew Scriptures it begins with the people's emancipating Exodus from Egypt; in the Christian Scriptures, it revolves around Jesus' liberating resurrection.
Though Zephaniah is six centuries removed from the Exodus, his oracles reproduce the joy and amazement which filled the Israelites as they marched "dry-shod" through the sea. But now Egypt is no longer the enemy. Babylon is Jerusalem's present foe. Yet no matter the situation, Yahweh's still "in your midst, a mighty savior." God alone "has removed the judgment against you, has turned away your enemies." With no concept of an after-life as we know it, our ancestors in the faith only knew salvation by experiencing freedom.
As a good Jew, Paul shares that belief. His voice must have raised a few tones as he dictated the words which comprise our Philippians pericope. "Rejoice in the Lord always! I say it again, Rejoice . . . The Lord himself is near. Dismiss all anxiety from your minds."
Jesus has brought Paul the freedom he and his people has sought for the 12 centuries since the Exodus. Finally a reason to rejoice. Yet this liberation didn't happen without the participation of those who were liberated. In the above Pauline quote, I omitted seven words which are essential to Christian freedom. Sr. Diane stressed in her lecture that people are only free when they form communities. Her classic definition of community is "a group of people who take responsibility for one another."
Paul's seven essential words are, "Your kindness should be known to all." The New American translation footnote states that kindness, in this context, can also be translated, "considerateness, forbearance, fairness." The original New American translators rendered the sentence, "Everyone should see how unselfish you are." But no matter what English word we use, Paul's reminding the Philippians church of its community responsibilities.
Technically, I'm not responsible for the people in front or behind me in a store check-out lane. But those who become church are deeply responsible for one another. Together, the Apostle frequently teaches, we form the Body of Christ. Nothing could more bind us together as one.
Notice how John the Baptizer answers the query, "What then should we do?"
"Whoever has two cloaks should share with the person who has none. Whoever has food should do likewise." Tax collectors and soldiers receive a specific response. "Stop collecting more than what is prescribed . . . Do not practice extortion, do not falsely accuse anyone, and be satisfied with your wages."
John says nothing about believing in specific dogmas or engaging in meaningful liturgies. His answer to anyone who asks is basically the same: "Relate to people as someone who is responsible for them."
That's why his comment about Jesus is so important. ". . . One mightier than I is coming. I am not worthy to loosen the thongs of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire." In other words, "The one I'm preceding will be even more emphatic than I am on how you're to relate to one another. There's no other way he can lead you to freedom."
Fortunately, we're hearing these biblical words in the context of the Lord's Supper, the action which most makes us one. Look around as these words are being proclaimed, glance at those with whom you share responsible ties, those who guarantee us the freedom Jesus has won for us.