With Christ towards the Millennium

(Part 1)

Sr. Fiona McSorley OP

Almost a hundred years ago, Thomas Hardy, the great English Poet and novelist, penned a moving epic called 'The Darkling Thrush'
I leant upon a coppice gate
When frost was spectre-open
And winter's dregs made desolate
The weakening eye of day'
In the poem, it is the end of the day, the end of the year, the end, in fact of the century. Nature has contracted; 'the ancient pulse of germ and birth / Is shrunken hard and dry'. The grey landscape is "spectre-haunted". The poet, along with 'every other spirit upon earth' is fervourless, out of tune, hopeless.

Suddenly, the gloom is exploded by the thrilling, full-throated song of a thrush. And this is no brash, impatient young bird cocking a snook at misery, striking a handsome defiant attitude in the face of an uninspiring, spiritless old world. No, this is 'an aged thrush, frail, gaunt and small with blast-beruffled plume' who has launched her song of joy and life. This is a weather-beaten, life-battered old bird who sings of hope, even when there does not, on the surface, seem to be much cause for singing. Why?

We live in a rationalistic, materialistic and reductionistic society

We too are nearing the end of a century, indeed a millennium (which only one group of people has ever done before us). It is said we live in a rationalistic, materialistic and reductionistic society, in which we seem to have lost a sense of our own humanity, values and spirituality. So what will our song be like as we approach the new millennium? Will it be a weak warble or a full-throated proclamation of hope and Good News, challenging the gloom?

I have been asked to offer some reflections about journeying as Dominicans, with Christ, toward the new Millennium. However, one could be forgiven for thinking that the countdown to the Millennium is a purely secular enterprise. Millennium projects and extravaganzas have been organised by the business and catering world. Concorde planes are fully booked for a world trip so that passengers may celebrate the new Millennium 3 times on the one flight!

We have to remember that what we are actually celebrating is the 2,000th anniversary of the birth of Jesus Christ in Bethlehem. That 'When the fullness of time had come, God sent his Son, born of a woman' (Gal 4:4). Never before had such a thing happened, eternity entering into time (Par. 9). In contrast to the father in the parable of the prodigal son (Lk 15:11-32), von Balthasar, in a similar vein to Barth, points out that God the Father does not just simply wait for the return of his creation. Rather he sends his Son off 'into the far country' to bring his people home. Jesus is the goal toward which the whole history of revelation and salvation, the prehistory as Rahner calls it, comes to live as God and humankind" which has tilted the course of history forever. It is the story of two freedoms, says Boff, the meeting of two loves. O Christian, be aware of your nobility!

through Jesus, in the Spirit, to the Father

The Pope has written an Apostolic Letter 'Tertio Millennio Adveniente' or 'the Coming of the Third Millennium' in which he helps us focus precisely on this 'the true cause of our joy'. The idea is that we deepen our discipleship of Jesus in 1997, of the Holy Spirit in 1998, and of God the Father in 1999. So it is 'through Jesus, in the Spirit, to the Father'

So this year, we are to concentrate upon the person of Jesus Christ, his baptism and mission to bring about the Jubilee of Justice, thus offering a perfect base for ecumenical action. I personally found the Pope's Letter very powerful and universal call to action and I suggest that we tease out some of its strands.

First of all, what do the words 'anniversary' and 'jubilee' bring to mind for you?

Jubilee is a biblical idea (Ref. Ex 23:10-11; Deut 15:1-6; Lev 25:1-18) In the time of the Old Testament, a jubilee was celebrated after every 7 years, to let the land lie fallow so as not to overwork it and to allow the poor and stranger to take their pickings off the land. A special jubilee then was celebrated every 50 years (7x7).

For the Jewish people 'this year of the Lord's favour' implied a restructuring of society which offered people new possibilities, a new chance. Those who had been dispossessed of their land were to have the opportunity to regain it. Those who had fallen into slavery were to be freed. It was a reminder to the people that all things belonged to God and were a gift for them to use. It was also a reminder to the rich that a time would come when the Israelite slaves would once again become their equals (Par 13) and would be able to reclaim their rights (Labour and Conservatives). The day of reckoning would come! In other words, it was a call to live in right relationship with God, with self, with each other and with the earth because we are all part of the one interconnected web of reality.

In Jesus, then, all the Jubilees of the Old Testament reached perfection. This theme was absolutely central to his whole understanding of how things should be. We see him in the synagogue at Nazareth (Lk 4:16-21) unrolling the scroll. It is he who proclaims the Good News to the poor. It is he who brings liberty to those deprived of it, who frees the oppressed and gives back sight to the blind (Mt 11:4-5; Lk 7:22). In this way Jesus ushers in 'a year of the Lord's favour' in both word and action. He points to a God whose care endures through life and death, through good fortune and bad. His Abba is sensitive to the history of suffering, touches lightly the sinner, receives back the prodigal and cherishes the weak.

In an unfree situation marked by social, economic and political dependence, Jesus introduces a radical principle of change, a kind of utopic vision. He announces the reign or the kingdom of God, a potent symbol, which, says Boff, 'quickens the wellsprings of absolute hope that have been buried or dried up by history and its structures'. This kingdom is not about territorial rule, about the right to march the same highways as his ancestors, although it does have concrete implications. Rather, it is God's intervention on behalf of God's people.

Have life and have it to the full

God's reign shows itself in Jesus in unprogrammed freedom. 'I have come, says Jesus, that they may have life and have it to the full' (John 10:10). Similarly, it is always gift, always gratuitous love. 'For what do you have that you did not receive' (1 Cor 4:7). It is manifested by Jesus' predilection for the poor, the weak, the excluded, the despised - what Meier calls 'the religious low-life' of his day. Who do we consider the religious low-life of our day?

Now at the time of Jesus, God's rule was awaited by the Zealots, the Pharisees, the Essenes and the Sadduces, each in different ways. The Zealots - a bit like today's IRA - conceived of that rule predominately in political terms. Fiercely zealous for the Torah, they hated the Roman occupier, confronting also the Jewish religio-political leadership which they despised as a venal compromise. In a different way - a bit like today's cults, the Essene community at Qumran rejected the corruption of Jerusalem, and withdrew to enclaves in the desert where they lived in ascetic preparation for the coming kingdom (Hale Bopp). The Pharisees, on the other hand, looked to the Temple, and tried to extend ritual purity and doctrinal orthodoxy to the minutest details of everyday living. This legalism earned Jesus' trenchant criticism for its repressive attitudes to the weak and those who, they considered, could not 'come up to scratch'.

Finally then, the Sadducces, conservative and aristocratic, collaborated in a way typical of all oligarchies:

'As long as the tithes were being paid and the ceremonial liturgy of the Temple carried out, they saw no reason to doubt that God was sovereign of the land, even if the Romans (dare I say the government or the secular powers) has political control over it'

With whom do you identify as we await the reign of God in the new Millennium

The kingdom of God is in your midst

There must have been a sharp, almost brusque clarity in the contrast of Jesus' announcement 'The time is fulfilled and the kingdom of God has come near; repent and believe in the Good News' (Mk 1:15) Zero-hour has arrived. The countdown of the clock in the Liffey has ended. The kingdom of God id in your midst. It is at your doors. God's future is penetrating the present. Just as it is now.

The actions most representative of Jesus - those that filled his heart - revolved, as we know, around the outcasts and sinners. On behalf of people who had no other hope of being liberated, Jesus was active to offer something that made them more completely human - table-fellowship, forgiveness, healing. He assured them that God was on their side. He cherished them and in his presence they rediscovered their dignity and humanity. We are called to do the same. But how? I want to highlight just two ways which I think have particular relevance to a Dominican spirituality - compassion and evangelisation.

(The second part of Fiona's article will be in the next issue of Praedicare)