Last Updated: Friday - 09/24/2010
Week of January 14, 2008
Courage of Burmese monks was bishop's top story of 2007
Their peaceful witness was akin to the reign of God in history
A Shepherd Speaks
By BISHOP FRED HENRY
It is customary for the media to conduct an exercise called The Year in Review in which the various personages, events and headline stories of the past year are recalled. My favourite didn't make the top 10.
In September, Buddhist monks and nuns took to the streets of Burma (Myanmar) to challenge the 20-year-old rule of the brutal junta that had sunk the country further into poverty and repression. The monks were detained, tear-gassed, beaten and shot by the government troops, but the barefoot, saffron-robed religious continued their nonviolent march for democracy.
They were joined by thousands of Burmese citizens who were inspired by the witness of the monks. As they walked through the streets, many carried banners reading "loving kindness"; and the monks and people chanted - "Do-aye" - "It is our task."
In better times, monks and nuns - revered by the Burmese people as the country's highest moral authority - walked through the streets carrying wooden begging bowls, collecting alms and donations. To place a gift in a monk's bowl is considered making a spiritual gift.
But during the pro-democracy demonstrations of the past year, the monks refused to accept alms from the members of the military, a refusal known as "turning over the rice bowl" that amounted to a gesture of excommunication.
The message to the military: Your brutality and oppression have put you at odds with all that you should hold sacred. During their march, monks were seen holding their begging bowls upside down, the black lacquer surfaces reflecting the light.
Three days later, government forces began a ruthless crackdown and thousands of monks vanished.
By the quiet witness of their peaceful march, with the simple "weapon" of a bowl, the monks risked their lives to bring down a cruel reign of fear and replace it with something akin to the reign of God.
The events of this past year remind us that we are not living in Camelot. The lyrics of Camelot speaks of an imaginary place where "July and August cannot be too hot . . . where winter is forbidden until December and exits until March the second on the dot . . . where the rain may never fall until after sundown and by eight the morning fog must disappear."
In a repeated refrain the song tells us: "In short, there's simply not a more congenial spot for happy ever-aftering than here in Camelot!"
We speak not of "ever-aftering" but of a God who has become flesh and blood, who enters a broken world, who helps the lowly here and now, a God of mercy and might who helps the oppressed and downtrodden.
Gospel in history
Luke further emphasized this in his majestic beginning to the Gospel: "In the 15th year of the rule of Tiberius Caesar, when Pontius Pilate was procurator of Judea, Herod tetrarch of Galilee, Philip his brother tetrarch of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias tetrarch of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God was spoken to John, son of Zechariah in the desert."
The purpose of this is not to tell us the exact date of the public life of Jesus but to make it clear that what is taking place is the coming of God into world history. This is not a little vignette about something that happened in a distant corner of the world. It is the turning point of history, the decisive entry of the kingdom within world history.
Camelot in the sky
It would seem so much easier if God had never done this and instead had maintained his kingdom off somewhere else, like Camelot, and promised us a place in it after the world was destroyed, if only we passed the test.
The world needs our quiet witness and peaceful march as we too carry banners that proclaim 'loving kindness.'
But God did not do that. The shaping of this world is part of shaping the kingdom. The Second Vatican Council document Gaudium et Spes tells us: "The word of God . . . entered world history, taking that history into himself and recapitulating it. He reveals to us that 'God is love' and at the same time teaches that the transformation of the world is the new commandment of love" (no. 38).
It is a strong kind of kingdom. It is "a new earth in which righteousness dwells, whose happiness will fill and surpass all the desires of peace. . . .
"Then with death conquered, the children of God will be raised in Christ and what was sown in weakness and dishonour will put on the imperishable: Charity and its works will remain and all of creation, which God made for us, will be set free from its bondage" (no. 39).
It is a kingdom that does not fit this world. Our king is Jesus, and he stands in sharp contrast to the cast of worldly leaders Luke gives us - Caesar and Pilate and Herod and the others.
Yet we must live this kingdom now, as though it were fully here even though it doesn't fit. We are to challenge others to do so even though it may seem foolish. Those who tell us to leave history alone and deal only with Church matters miss the point of the incarnation and fail to understand the nature of the Church.
The world needs our quiet witness and peaceful march as we too carry banners that proclaim "loving kindness."
Seeking the stars
Pope Benedict in his recent encyclical - On Christian Hope - explores the dead ends and the true nature of hope and concludes his reflections with these words:
"Human life is a journey. Towards what destination? How do we find the way? Life is like a voyage on the sea of history, often dark and stormy, a voyage in which we watch for the stars that indicate the route.
"The true stars of our life are the people who have lived good lives. They are lights of hope. Certainly, Jesus Christ is the true light, the sun that has risen above all the shadows of history. But to reach him we also need lights close by - people who shine with his light and so guide us along our way.
"Who more than Mary could be a star of hope for us? With her 'yes' she opened the door of our world to God himself; she became the living Ark of the Covenant, in whom God took flesh, became one of us, and pitched his tent among us (no. 49)."