In the fifteenth year of the reign of Emperor Tiberius, when Pontius Pilate was governor of Judea, and Herod was ruler of Galilee, and his brother Philip ruler of the region of Ituraea and Trachonitis, and Lysanias ruler of Abilene, during the high priesthood of Annas and Caiaphas, the word of God came to John son of Zechariah in the wilderness. He went into all the region around the Jordan, proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins, as it is written in the book of the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
In the third year of the presidency of Jimmy Carter, when generals were ruling over El Salvador, and rebels (armed by the US) were planning a coup, and priests who stood with the poor were called terrorists and communists, the word of God came to Bishop Oscar Romero in the wilderness of a civil war.
Both Oscar and John the Baptist spoke an unpopular truth that upset those in power. In the scripture above, Luke didn’t just throw in all those hard to pronounce names to try and stump the scripture reader. He was framing the world into which this prophet John was preparing the way. In the midst of these oppressive leaders, John was not only speaking words about the change he knew was coming, but he being those words made flesh. John’s weapon of choice was the waters of Baptism; Romero used the bread and the cup.
Romero went into the town square, proclaiming that God was present with the poor, calling on the government and church to repent, and he served the bread and cup as the ultimate protest against the oppression of the poor. Romero knew that the body and blood, when embodied by the people, empowered them to make paths straight, fill valleys, lower mountains and hills, and smooth over rough places… how? Romero believed that God was present in the bread and cup, was present in the poor themselves, and that all flesh would see the salvation of God.
Said another way, Romero framed the plight of a people being oppressed with the perspective of a Christ who suffered and died and defeated death. Romero could confidently serve the bread and cup in defiance of those standing around them with guns pointed because he knew how the story ends: all flesh shall see the salvation of God.
Do not be confused… this is not a “it doesn’t matter what happens here on earth because everything will be okay in heaven” theology. This is the theology or life perspective of “I know how this is all going to end—love defeats death—so I am going to live then ending now. I am not only going to speak words about the change I know is coming, but I am going to be those words made flesh.”
In the words of Oscar Romero:
Advent should admonish us to discover in each brother or sister that we greet, in each friend whose hand we shake, in each beggar who asks for bread, in each worker who wants to use the right to join a union, in each peasant who looks for work in the coffee groves, the face of Christ. Then it would not be possible to rob them, to cheat them, to deny them their rights. This is what Advent is: Christ living among us.
Again, don’t be confused… this is not a history lesson about events that happened over 30 years ago. This is as true today as it was then. Advent is not all love, peace, joy, and candles on Christmas Eve. Advent is a chance again to prepare for the persecution that is coming when we welcome this revolutionary, table turning, bread and cup-serving Christ child into our lives again.
There is no real peace without justice. Oscar and John stood up to corrupt governments and churches that preached “peace” that was dependent on the oppression of the poor and the silence of mass graves. “Peace” was maintained by the US-assisted Salvadorian government through kidnapping, torturing, and killing those who preached about what real peace looked like.
In Romero’s words:
It is important to note why [the Church] has been persecuted. Not any and every priest has been persecuted, not any and every institution has been attacked. That part of the church has been attacked and persecuted that put itself on the side of the people and went to the people’s defense. Here again we find the same key to understanding the persecution of the church: the poor.
Sounds a lot like today. We hear propaganda like “freedom isn’t free”, while those who speak about what real freedom and peace look like are condemned as troublemakers and sometimes terrorists. Many of our churches that are “thriving” are maintaining their growth on the backs of the poor—proclaiming “peace” where there is no justice, while those who stand with the poor are sacrificed by those same churches in order to maintain that “peace”.
But the hope we find in this Advent time of waiting and preparing can be found in the very words made flesh by John and Oscar:
John the Baptist quoting Isaiah:
The voice of one crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight. Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall be made straight, and the rough ways made smooth; and all flesh shall see the salvation of God.’
Bishop Oscar Romero blessing the bread and cup:
We receive here the body of the Lord who offered himself for the redemption of the world. May his body and blood given for us nourish us in such a way that we, too, may give our body and blood as Christ did, so we may bring justice and peace to our people.
Immediately after speaking these words, Romero was shot dead by the government; John the Baptist was eventually beheaded by the government. They were both guilty of speaking truth to those in power, telling the oppressed something the powerful didn’t want them to hear:
Freedom is free.
Real peace is only possible with justice.
Love conquers death.
And this was all made flesh by a little baby whose blood would be the seed of freedom.
A reflection by Andy Oliver.