By Fr. Joseph DeFrancisco
Catholic Christians begin their new spiritual-liturgical year with the celebration of Advent. Traditionally, the spirituality of Advent has directed our spiritual journey to remember the past expectation of the Hebrew community awaiting the coming of the Messiah, a deliverer to re-establish peace and justice, as well as the fulfillment of God’s promise to create one, great nation of people, united under one God, and one faith, one law, Torah.
The Scriptural themes of Advent have also pointed us to the mystery of the second coming of Christ which will complete and bring to perfection the new Kingdom of God on Earth. Again, the Kingdom of God for Jesus meant the existence of a fellowship of universal love, justice and peace, embracing not only the Hebrew community but all of humankind, under the presence of Jesus Christ and the empowerment of the Holy Spirit.
The third aspect of Advent, which this article will reflect on, is how we Christians await the fulfillment of Jesus’ promises in the here and now, as one famous French spiritual writer, Jean-Pierre de Caussade, called “The Sacrament of the Present Moment.” Like all sacraments, the challenge of the present moment is to see and experience God’s presence in the incarnate presence of Jesus, tangibly manifest in a broken and impoverished world. Nowhere is this struggle and brokenness more evident than in Israel today. Just as the Hebrews prior to Jesus’ birth were praying and hoping that a deliverer would eradicate the military and political abuse, and in addition, economic injustices, so today Jews and Palestinians struggle to achieve an imagined peace and justice that equally heals the insecurity, prejudice and injustices on both sides. This struggle has been going on for decades, if not centuries, but certainly was exacerbated by the creation of the nation-state of Israel in 1948.
A new controversy has emerged among Christians, the participation of Catholics and Christians in a more contemporary movement, Christian Zionism. For centuries Jews waited prayerfully for God to protect them, grant them security, a home, a peaceful existence. In the aftermath of the Holocaust they had to decide whether to continue this passive waiting or take more assertive action in doing what they could do to bring about God’s promises.
We Christians are also prayerful each year as we await Christmas with our hearts spiritually motivated. We also wait in eager and joyful anticipation of Christ’s final coming. Yet, our world remains in a serious crisis. Our own nation is at war within itself, a war against abuse and violence, a war against illiteracy and hunger, a war against drugs and ecological disaster. Globally, our country is still at war with international terrorism, the war in Afghanistan and Iraq.
Why do Christians believe there is a need to participate in the ongoing process of strengthening a Jewish State? It is because Catholics-Christians have always been present in Israel from the life, death and resurrection of Christ. Our Gospel mandate is not simply to pray, but to give active witness to a mission given us by Jesus through the Holy Spirit. Jesus calls us is to be “peace-makers.” Christians are expected to model how the Kingdom of God is to be built up in love, peace and justice.
We have Gospel truths that must be communicated to the world. The truth is that all of humankind is called to transcend geography, land, territory and power. In the end we are all to experience powerlessness in the presence of God and willingness to relinquish all material things to embrace our heavenly treasure. Christian Zionism inspires us to do all this side by side with Jews and Palestinians as a way of creating a just, holy and secure Israel that not only tolerates but welcomes all believers to love, respect and revere the story and presence of our one, true God.
This is not to mean that we blindly accept and support all political decisions made by any of the forces inside or outside of Israel. The direction that Christian Zionism must now take has been clearly outlined in the recent Vatican Synod on the Middle East, of a joint consensus arrived at by Jewish, Muslim and Christian, Catholic and Orthodox leaders in Rome. The challenge from this synod could very well be what our Advent spirituality may focus on within the sacrament of our present moment.
From the Jewish community comes a promise of becoming more welcoming of minorities, a commitment to mutual respect and admiration, an appreciation for each other’s presence in the Holy Land and vested interests in their unique stories. The patriarch and the papacy have pledged to begin a New Pentecost in the Holy Land. As the Holy Spirit breathed new knowledge, understanding and life into the nascent Christian community, so the same Spirit will lead us to share in each other’s sufferings, mutually combat the evils of violence, war, terrorism and the undermining of each other’s national security interests.
The synod has accepted three challenges in the Middle East. The first is to increase our work and efforts to find a unity and community among our divided Christian communities. Second, to work and support the efforts of Arabs and Jews in establishing an equal and just security for their peoples, maximizing freedoms, developing self-sufficient resources, breaking down artificial walls and barriers and healing of economic and ethnic injustices. Third, no matter where Christians reside, we will welcome, give aid and comfort to all emigrants and refugees fleeing from persecution, violence and war. In the end, according to the Synodal Document (3.4) we Catholic Christians are obliged to build up countries as communities of fellow-citizens, be they Christian, Jew or Muslim.
(Fr. Joseph DeFrancisco is a professor of theology at St. Ambrose University in Davenport.)