By Monica Scheifele, Program Assistant for the Ottawa Office. Monica’s reflection is based on the Lectionary readings for the 3rd Sunday of Advent: Zephaniah 3:14-20, Isaiah 12:2-6 and Philippians 4:4-7.
There has been much talk about change in the last few months with, first, a federal election, and then a new cabinet being sworn in, and the new government setting its agenda. Many may ask, though, whether this change will be lasting or whether it is all just talk that we have heard before.
I recently came across the poem “We are Preparing for Christmas” by Peter Ediger which speaks of the darkness of cynicism, oppression, fear, and guilt. I realized that even though I am generally a positive, optimistic person there are times when it is easy to be overcome by the “darkness of cynicism.” Perhaps living in Ottawa and working in the area of advocacy makes one more susceptible to this particular “darkness” and its message that nothing really changes.
The face of government may change and there are many new MPs with great ideas, but can the system really be changed? Question Period seems civil now, but it won’t last long. The Make Poverty History Campaign was launched 10 years ago, but there’s still poverty. Isn’t it naïve to think the new Sustainable Development Goals will be more effective in bringing about change than the Millennium Development Goals? Wars continue and there seem to be more refugees and displaced people than ever. Terrorists keep popping up everywhere and it feels as if no one will ever be truly safe ever again. As Peter Ediger so aptly laments, “The darkness of cynicism envelops the soul and the darkness of cynicism makes heavy the heart.”
Fortunately we are in Advent, a time for good news. As I study the Lectionary readings for this third Sunday, I am struck by the many images of good news contained in these passages. Zephaniah 3:14-20 overflows with images which could clearly be defined as good news, including the removal of judgments and disasters, the lame being saved, the shame of the outcast being turned into praise, a returning home and restoration of fortunes. Who wouldn’t rejoice on hearing these words? Isaiah 12:2-6 offers a glimpse of something a little more abstract when it speaks of the Lord becoming our salvation, while the writer of Philippians 4:4-7 focuses on the theme of rejoicing in the good news that the Lord is near and there is no reason for fear or worry. All this does indeed sound like good news and — as Ediger puts it — “softly lightens the heart.”
Then we come to Luke’s account of John the Baptist’s ministry, with John calling the crowd “a brood of vipers” who should flee from “the wrath to come.” These words don’t sound like good news and may even have been the result in part of “the darkness of cynicism” as well. Then again, maybe there is good news even in judgment. Soldiers and tax collectors were part of those crowds and were obviously affected because they asked what they should do to, in John’s words, to “bear fruits worthy of repentance.” Tax collectors in particular would have been perceived as the epitome of sinners at that time, profiting while being the agents of Roman oppression. John’s language was strong and forceful, but his message was good news for those oppressed by the Roman Empire because it meant the dominance of evil would come to an end. There would be justice as evil-doers changed their minds, turned around and did something good. What a powerful message of good news.
Even better is that the good news doesn’t end there. In all four passages of scripture, there are references to the presence of the Lord. The Lord is coming, is near, or in our midst. No one listening to John likely imagined that the Messiah’s arrival was so close at hand or would happen in such a humble setting, but it did. God is present with us. Change is not only possible, but it is happening in unexpected ways. Individual hearts and minds can experience positive change which means the world also can be changed.
Over fifteen years ago more than 120 countries came together in Ottawa to sign the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention (often known informally as the Land Mine Treaty), which no one thought possible just a year earlier. As a result, millions of landmines have been cleared and destroyed, saving lives and returning land to productive use. Out of that work emerged the effort to ban cluster munitions. The recent Truth and Reconciliation Commission with its many recommendations appears to be starting a process of healing. And the announcement of an inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women is another hopeful sign.
May the words of the Lord break through our cynicism and let us rejoice in the good news that every effort (advocacy related or otherwise) toward a just and peaceful world is bringing change.