In our daily prayers God was every manner of image and metaphor and meaning, and always, "God the Father." We never ever prayed to "God our Mother." What were women in the economy of God? The answer was only too painful: We were invisible. I had given my life to a God who did not see me, did not include me, did not touch my nature with God's own....Joan Chittister, "Called to Question"

Wednesday, December 12, 2007

Advent 3 Reflection

Advent 3 reflections on Matthew 11:2-11
By Jacqueline Schmitt

I spent Sunday afternoon watching The Matrix, the 1999 movie with Keanu Reeves and Laurence Fishburne. In case you forgot the plot, or were too old to see it when it came out (do you remember book critic Phyllis Tickle lauding it at the Trinity Institute that year, spurring scores of middle-aged or older Episcopalians in the telecast audience to run to their nearest Blockbuster?), the film depicts the world as we know it as nothing but a computer program. Humans seem to be alive but in reality are batteries, hooked up to power a global network of machines. Breaking through this malevolent matrix is the vocation of a small multicultural band, a remnant underground of resistance and hope. The hidden human community, fiercely protected by these techno-geeks skilled in gravity-defying martial arts, lives in the underground city of Zion, awaiting the One who will restore the planet to justice and human habitation. On Sunday afternoon, I should have been writing this meditation for the blog, but instead, I watched this movie.

What an Advent movie it is, with the Advent allusions to hope, longing, waiting, darkness, restoration and retribution. It is NOT a Christian movie, but it just may be a John the Baptist movie.

With two weeks of John the Baptist readings, we get a picture of this prophet as ferocious and uncompromising. On Advent 2 we read of vipers, wrath, an ax-wielding clear-cutter of rotten trees. The One John proclaims is one who ruthlessly winnows and burns the worthless with an unquenchable fire. In Advent 3, we find this same John in prison. Is not Herod’s prison one of torture and deprivation, the first century equivalent of Abu Ghraib, both examples of the institutionalized violence of occupation and empire?

Neo, Keanu Reeves’ character in The Matrix, is a modern millennial equivalent of the One proclaimed by John. In the scene where Trinity and Neo suit up in tight leather and flowing coats – severe and stylish in black – they arm themselves with more machine guns than one would think the entire US Army possesses. They are going in to rescue the imprisoned and tortured Morpheus, their leader, and in so doing execute a battalion of soldiers, while executing a terror-filled but beautiful ballet of bullets and destruction.

On that Sunday afternoon of Advent 2, we witnessed another horror on the news, as a young man with guns killed missionaries and church-goers in Colorado. We mourned the deaths of Christmas shoppers in Nebraska. Seeing The Matrix on such a Sunday afternoon, I could not help but see the parallels: the long black coats, the blazing machine guns, the righteous anger, the hopelessness – or was it hope, fueled by a conviction for retribution and restoration? Where did the imagination for these rampages come from? From movies like The Matrix? Or from some place deeper in the human past, from some place that drove John the Baptist to the wilderness? From an imposed militarism and institutionalized violence that has dominated human society for thousands of years? How different was the life of John the Baptist, on the fringes of the Roman Empire, from that of young men today, desperate and violent, with weapons almost as readily at hand as those of Neo and Trinity?

Advent hymns reflect that rawness, that hope tinged with violence. The Boston Camerata’s collection, An American Christmas, contains this 1809 hymn in, sung by men’s voices:

Who is this that comes from far,
with his garments dipped in blood?
Strong, triumphant traveler;
is he man or is he God?
I that reign in righteous ness,
Son of God and Man I am.
Mighty to redeem your race,
Jesus is your savior’s name.

Hark the trumpets awful voice;
sounds abroad through sea or land.
Let his people now rejoice.
Their redemption is at hand.
I that reign in righteous ness,
Son of God and Man I am.
Mighty to redeem your race,
Jesus is your savior’s name.

See the lord appears in view,
heaven and earth before him fly.
Rise ye saints he comes for you,
rise to meet him in the sky
I that reign in righteous ness,
Son of God and Man I am.
Mighty to redeem your race,
Jesus is your savior’s name.

The Advent 3 gospel records Jesus’ answer to John’s question:

‘Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?’ Jesus answered them, ‘Go and tell John what you hear and see: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news brought to them. And blessed is anyone who takes no offence at me.’

Jesus stands with the least. Jesus brings healing, wholeness, grace. For Jesus, the reign of God comes in power and non-violence. To be saved by Jesus, we are made whole, not hacked to pieces. In the Isaiah passage for the day, we read,

Strengthen the weak hands, and make firm the feeble knees. Say to those who are of a fearful heart, ‘Be strong, do not fear!’ Here is your God.

The passage goes on:

He will come with vengeance, with terrible recompense. He will come and save you.
I can read these texts only as myself: a middle-aged Episcopal priest, a woman, a mother of sons and daughters the age of those young imitators of Neo. My stance can be only that of hope: hope that what we Christians read, hear and preach in these texts is that God’s holy vengeance brings salvation: healing, wholeness, grace.
With this image in my mind of John the Baptist as Neo, as a teen-age shooter desperate to get his message across, I read Jesus’ final words about John differently than I ever did before. The passage describes Jesus walking away from the conversation with John’s disciples, and implies some controversy about John, or his tactics, or perhaps highlights the contrast with Jesus. What Jesus then says seems full of compassion for the hot-headed one, whose strident and counter-cultural ways got him thrown into prison. What did you go out to see, Jesus asks those who may be critical of John. Look, Jesus says, John sees what is wrong with this society; he has a point. He is a prophet, after all. For Jesus, this John who is so different from him is the messenger of change, the one who knows what needs to be done. But when the reign of God comes, it is those Jesus mentioned first – the blind who now see, the lame who now run, the sick who are whole, the deaf who can hear, the dead brought back to life, and even the poor who will share in the abundance of God’s creation – these are the citizens of Holy Zion, the least now great in the arms of God.

The Matrix may not be a Christian movie, but it it tells a story of people pushed to their limits, desperate people seeking hope, a story John the Baptist would have understood.

2 comments:

mompriest said...

The first time I watched this movie was New Year's eve 1999...I had been ordained a mere 3 days...and of course we were all pensive, wondering if there was any truth the fears of computer crashes etc as we headed into the 21st century.

Since then I've used the movie as an illustration for a sermon or two. I found the movie, like Jackie, to be very provocative. I don't care much for the violence, even if the violence is toward computer images and not real people...

I am struck by this from Jackie's reflection: "Where did the imagination for these rampages come from? From movies like The Matrix? Or from some place deeper in the human past, from some place that drove John the Baptist to the wilderness? From an imposed militarism and institutionalized violence that has dominated human society for thousands of years? How different was the life of John the Baptist, on the fringes of the Roman Empire, from that of young men today, desperate and violent, with weapons almost as readily at hand as those of Neo and Trinity?"

Raising a son I am faced first hand with the threat of violence in our world and its influence on our children. I think we cannot blame this or other movies for the actions of people...that only allows us to avoid the real problem our kids face of isolation, rejection, bullying, and peer pressure to conform. The movies speak to a deep condition of our world and our human nature which needs to be addressed. In a world of such need I only hope the church can provide place to be known, heard, and loved rather than rejected.

RevDrKate said...

It strikes me that this reflection is particularly relevant in light of particular focus of the theology of this blog...."in an Age of Fear and Hope." Jackie speaks to this tension as expressed in popular culture and it's counter-point (or is it counterculture?)with, "Jesus stands with the least. Jesus brings healing, wholeness, grace. For Jesus, the reign of God comes in power and non-violence. To be saved by Jesus, we are made whole, not hacked to pieces." This stance of hope against fear puts us as Christians in a radical place in the culture. I appreciated the reminder from the Matrix to think about that again. Somehow in seeing he movie I'd missed the names...Neo, Trinity, Morpheus, Zion....my, my....none too subtle. Yes I think both John and Jesus would have appreciated it.