Singing the Song of Our Common Humanity

Singing the Song of Our Common Humanity

Homily for the First Sunday in Advent

December 3, 2023

Singing the Song of Our Common Humanity

Homily for December 3, 2023

The First Sunday of Advent

Isaiah 64:1-9


When Oprah interviewed him for her show, the hip-hop artist Jay-Z made this observation:  “Hip-hop has done more for racial relations than most cultural icons,” Jay-Z said…

This music didn’t only influence kids from urban areas, it influenced people all around the world… If you look at clubs and how integrated they have become—before, people partied in separate clubs. There were hip-hop clubs and there were techno clubs. And now people party together,and once you have people partying, dancing, and singing along to the same music, then conversations naturally happen. And within conversations, we all realize that we’re more alike than we are separate.

Though Jay-Z ostensibly was speaking about hip-hop and racial relations, his words also speak to what the Bible calls “lamentation,” an example of which is in today’s lesson from Isaiah chapter 64: “We have all become like one who is unclean,” Isaiah writes…

…and all our righteous deeds are like a filthy cloth.
We all fade like a leaf,
And our iniquities, like the wind, take us away.

Lamentation arises out of the complex space of deep divisions – of grievance, anger,disappointment and hurt.  Difficult though it may be to admit that we have sinned and stand in need of healing, lamentation opens the door for healing, and to realizing (in Jay-Z’s words) “that we’re more alike than we are separate.”

The setting of today’s passage from Isaiah is thought to be the bitter conflict that arose between the exiles who had returned from Babylon in 538 BCE and those Hebrews who had not been exiled but had remained in the land.  Those who had not been exiled, who remained in the land, during the 70 years of the Babylonian exile had become accustomed to being in charge in Jerusalem, and they did not readily welcome those returning. Imagine the bitter disappointment and deep anger of the returning exiles, who for years had yearned for “home” and who finally were allowed to return only to discover that they were not welcome.  Or imagine the indignation and anger of those who had remained in the land when these wealthier city-dwellers from a faraway place and of whom they had no memory suddenly arrived and announced that they were going to rebuild their city and their Temple.  The exiles’ return caused deep divisions, and much grievance and anger:  “O that you would tear open the heavens and come down,” writes the prophet:

so that the mountains would quake at your presence--
as when fire kindles brushwood
and the fire causes water to boil--
to make your name known to your adversaries.  

The hope for the Hebrews for finding healing was to lament; to lament was part of the Hebrews’ collective “grammar.”  In the Psalms, in the book of Lamentations, and in other writings such as in today’s lesson, the Hebrews offer examples of lament.  “We have sinned,” recognizes the prophet.  “Our…deeds are like a filthy cloth,” he writes. And these filthy deeds, their iniquities, “like the wind, take them away”from their anchor, their center, who is God.  

In addition to acknowledging our sin, one characteristic of all lament is expressing trust in God.  And true to the form, in today’s lesson the prophet places himself in God’s hands, trusting that God will set things right:

Yet, O Lord, you are our Father;
we are the clay, and you are our potter;
we are all the work of your hand.

To lament is both to recognize our fallen humanity, that we have sinned, and also to recognize that only God is God, and to put our trust in God.  As we come to recognize our fallen humanity,we are softened to recognize the humanity in the “other” whom we have hurt or who has hurt us.  And as we recognize our sinfulness and place our trust in God, it becomes possible to begin to “sing”the same “song” of our shared humanity and (to recall the image of Jay-Z’s)[and] to “realize that we’re more alike than we are separate.”  

We live in a world marked by much division: abroad, at home, perhaps in our own homes.  The season of Advent that we begin today is one of the Church’s penitential seasons.  Advent is an opportunity to practice lament, to practice acknowledging our sinfulness ,asking for forgiveness, and placing ourselves in God’s hands.  Difficult though it may be to acknowledge that we have sinned and stand in need of healing, to lament opens the door for healing.  As we learn to practice lament– acknowledging our sins, asking God for forgiveness, placing ourselves in God’s hands – perhaps we can – like the ancient Hebrews who once feuded bitterly among the ruins of Jerusalem – [perhaps we can] begin to find healing.  So that we, too, like the ancient Hebrews, can rebuild our interior “temple,” that we might find the intimacy, the connection, with God and with each other, for which our souls long.


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