Monday of the first week of Advent
The readings for the day can be found here.
The first reading from Isaiah promises that the Lord’s house will be established on the highest mountain. As I have been reflecting on this passage, I realized I’ve always thought of Mt. Zion as a place that is difficult to access, hard to reach both physically and spiritually. Instead, what strikes me now is that the point of establishing the Lord’s house on the highest mountain is that since it is the most visible, it will also be the most accessible to everyone. Usually, if I heard that multiple nations were converging on a mountain, I would think they wanted to claim the mountain, or to battle with each other until one nation established dominion. Instead, on Zion, the nations are unified by the word of God. That is, on the mountain, God gives a word (one word) that ends all war. The scripture says we can achieve peace if we believe that when we submit to God’s authority (a God who believes inclusion is justice, who prefers plowshares to swords) we can be transformed. So, in the first week of Advent it is as if the scripture is saying: “Prepare for Christ’s Coming. Step 1: End War.” This seems impossible, but I know there are many people who don’t flinch at this imperative, who spend their lives working to end war. In a broader sense, I also understand this as “Step 1: Heal All Divisions.” Is this any easier? Am I willing to put my defenses aside and heal the divisions in my own life? It might help to have the mountaintop’s long-view perspective.
The passage from Matthew’s Gospel shows a new model for unity—we no longer need to go to the mountain for instruction. Instead, Jesus brings the word to the people. Jesus is in Capernaum, a diverse city. The Roman Centurion, a Gentile who would seem to be the ultimate oppressor, whose violent profession is contrary to everything Jesus stands for, an outsider, is the only one able to broaden our understanding of Jesus’ authority. First, he humbles himself to ask for Jesus’ help. Second, he does not ask on his own behalf, but for his servant who is suffering. Third, when he trusts that his servant will be healed if Jesus says the word (again, one word), he overturns the belief that Jesus had to be physically present to heal—he teaches us that the word itself contains that presence, and he shows us the magnitude of the word.
This passage is particularly significant now because it contains one of the lines we will be reciting at Mass, right before Communion, moving from “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” to “Lord I am not worthy to welcome you under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” I am moved by the thought that when we speak these lines, we adopt the position of both the Centurion and his servant. While that fact stays the same in both translations, the actual language changes quite a bit. I know these translations have caused division, and the changes are painful for some members of the church. As this scripture teaches us, this feeling of division calls for a “convergence,” an honest dialogue. This scripture also teaches us that words are no small matter, that in fact the new translations can change our experience of God. Can I admit, for example, that I feel a sense of loss in the move from “I shall be healed” to “my soul shall be healed”—don’t we lose something central to Eucharist when we don’t ask for healing for both body and soul, the way saying “I” implied? But wait, in the case of these decisions, shouldn’t I trust in a higher authority? It’s true, maybe I am missing the point! I think, though, that these scriptures teach us how limiting homogeneity can be, and that seeking multiple perspectives is the only way to secure true peace and justice.
It seems to me that these passages ask us to begin Advent by thinking about how we can heal division through dialogue, by being brave enough to assert our beliefs and by actively seeking perspectives we might otherwise dismiss. Using this website might be a first step—don’t we read these reflections in the hope that we can change? Don’t we trust that words can open our understanding and transform us?
Finally, for me the greatest mystery in both of today’s passages is that God heals with such economy—that he doesn’t use many words, but one word. I am a poet, and my life’s work is about searching for the right words. Maybe this is a mistranslation, but I love thinking that there is one word that can end war, that there is one word that can heal us. I spend my days listening for it.
Katy Didden is a Postdoctoral Fellow in the Micah Program. She teaches literature and writing courses at SLU. Last May, she earned her PhD in English and Creative Writing from the University of Missouri.