Contemplating the scriptures on the 2nd Sunday of Advent, I can’t help but imagine the smirks on the faces of the Pharisee spies as they swaggered up to John the Baptist doing his thing in the River Jordan. John was connecting with countless spiritual seekers living under the yoke of empire, immersing themselves in repentance, a revival of their individual and collective faith. Pharisees are not seekers, they are know-it-all doctrinaires, and they knew that John’s ministry was a threat to theirs… a threat worth investigating.
You attract more flies with honey than you do with vinegar, or so the saying goes. But the Baptist (incidentally, a connoisseur of both [wild] honey and flies—or locusts, at least) has no welcome for the well-dressed spectators at the back of the crowd. Instead, he offers them a prophetic rebuke with two startling images in the present tense:
· “the axe lies at the root of the trees” (Matt. 3:10)
This image is more familiar when echoed by Jesus later in Matthew’s gospel, “You will recognize them by their fruit.” (Matt. 7:20). John’s not talking about pruning the unproductive trees for the next season—he’s swinging for the root.
· “his winnowing fan is in his hand” (Matt. 3:12)
After the harvest, it’s necessary to separate out the edible wheat from the rest of the grain husk, the chaff. This can be accomplished by winnowing—tossing a mixture of wheat and chaff in the air so the lighter chaff will blow away, but the wheat will land back in its container. The son/daughter of man wields the fan that blows away the waste leaving only the fruit.
In other words, this Pharisaic reconnaissance is a waste of time. This audience is fed up with sanctimonious charades, with religious elites masquerading around under the guise of infallibility. They’re no longer fooled by wolves in sheep’s clothing. This crowd yearns for authenticity, wholeness, and peace—a time when “the wolf shall be the guest of the lamb” (Isaiah 11:6a).
The season of Advent is no time to hide undercover. It’s too late for false pretenses and superficial disguises. “Not by appearances shall (s)he judge, nor by hearsay shall (s)he decide, but (s)he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted” (Isaiah 11:3-4).
It is with this profound spirit of solidarity that thousands gather year after year at the gates of the School of the Americas (hiding under the wooly disguise of WHINSEC), and chanting “no más, no more” as a rallying cry. Singing together in one voice to end the institutionalized absurdity of teaching terrorism disguised as democracy, “through the barrel of a gun,” in the words of Fr. Roy Bourgeois.
Those gathered outside the gates are seeking a new way of expressing their faith in non-violence, a way of extravagant simplicity which includes drum circles, stilt-walkers, and all-you-can-share vegan buffets. Those huddled inside the gates are defending abstract boundaries and ideologies, brandishing their chain link, razor wire, and handcuffs while their proudest alumni march in uniformed costumes throughout the halls of power in Latin America.
Why should we be surprised by undercover cops in the midst of such a crowd? Nothing but Pharisees, attracted by the inspirational curiosity of a movement that threatens the security of their easy answers—their fragile right versus wrong, good guys and bad guys. Is it possible to envision that “the leopard shall lie down with the kid” (Isaiah 11:6b) in an empire that aims to perpetuate Guantánomo? Can we, as a society, begin to unmask those hiding behind the joysticks of drones as they prowl the Middle East, shrouded in desert clouds? Who invented the curriculum for this democracy?
And yet, as the days get shorter, in this Advent season of authenticity apart from appearances, we find ourselves looking for a bright star to follow in the dark night sky. The star doesn’t lead us out on a limb of consumer society, not to the far left or the far right, but back to the roots of the Jesse tree. Here, from the stump, “a shoot shall sprout… a bud shall blossom” (Isaiah 11:1) as a sign of revival, repentance, metamorphosis. Breathing into the core of the humus, what we have seen before in our human vulnerability, the Divine makes a home in our feeding trough, in the frailty of a movement worth infiltrating.
Come Emmanuel, God with US,
Savior betrayed by an undercover disciple,
Heir to a Kingdom beyond the dreams of empire,
Lead us to repentance through authenticity,
Lead us to vulnerability through courage,
Lead us to freedom through peace.
Infiltrate us with your mercy, so that we may climb and topple
The barriers of intimidation that shield our borders,
And unite one family, one people, one Church, one voice:
“Ya basta! Somos América!”