Where are the Prophets?

Reprinted from The Common Good, No 55, Advent 2010

Simeon went up to the Temple to pray. He didn’t know about Christ’s birth—nobody did much! But he believed! Sometimes that faith was in the dark recesses of his mind. Yet he believed that God would send the Messiah!

Simeon sees that for which he waited. It is in his arms. So Simeon is now ready to die. We do not know how imminent his death is—but at least he takes time to bless Jesus’ parents and he directs a message to Mary. He talks about the destiny of her child and of the sword that will pierce her own soul. Her heart will be cut open.

Simeon’s prophecy is also for us. If the pain we bear is not just for us, but for others, we can bear it with freedom because we trust in God. However, the sword has other meanings. The sword brings definition and judgment and, in Jewish imagery, it divides, defines, and separates. Even as an infant, Jesus calls people to decision, division, definition—taking sides with the afflicted.

Then Anna arrives—84-year-old Anna! We are told that Anna, ‘…never left the Temple; day and night—fasting, praying, worshipping God…’ Anna arrives and gives thanks to God. The time of fulfillment has come. This is the promised one. Anna is given no words. Unlike Simeon (or her biblical namesake, Hannah), she sings no canticle. Her voice is not heard. Her words of prophecy are not preserved. And no reaction to her prophecy is related. Simeon’s prophecy evokes amazement, but there is no such response to Anna. But we are told something. And what we are told is pivotal. We are told that Anna shares this experience with others in Jerusalem who also gave themselves to prayer, who awaited the fulfillment of God’s promises.

The description of Anna is complete enough for us to conclude that she is no backyard gossip.

Now, all of us who live and work in community know this: it is a vision that gives community birth; it is people’s commitment to that vision that gives it life in an ongoing way; and once such a vision and commitment are brought forth, a new being, a new reality is born, which is larger than the sum of its parts.

When she speaks, people listen. More, the text gives us the sense that she is part of a quiet network of people who knew one another, encouraged one another, engaged in their unofficial and probably unrecognized work of prayer. It is in this network that Anna did her work. And that work was to set the tone and give new meaning to the community. Out of her experience she was able to confer upon this praying community a new bond and the sense of an end nearing fulfillment.

Now, all of us who live and work in community know this: it is a vision that gives community birth; it is people’s commitment to that vision that gives it life in an ongoing way; and once such a vision and commitment are brought forth, a new being, a new reality is born, which is larger than the sum of its parts. But it is always an idea or a vision that gives meaning to the growth of a ‘we’ and of ‘friendship.’ Anna is building a community of faith and hope and love around her experience of the Christ.

I think this work of Anna—directly or indirectly—is so like the earliest days of the Catholic Worker Movement. More, it endures in and marks the spirit and process of Catholic Worker communities to this day. Anna sharing her experience with others in Jerusalem evokes the spirit of the earliest days of the Catholic Worker about which Dorothy wrote in the postscript of The Long Loneliness:

We were sitting there talking

when lines of people began to form

saying: ‘We need bread.’ We

could not say: ‘Go be filled!’ If

there were six small loaves and a

few fish we had to divide them.

We were sitting there and talking

when people moved in on us. Let

those who can take it take it. Some

moved out and that made room for

more. Somehow the walls expanded…

It was as casual as all that I

think. It just happened.

There is a deep connection between Anna speaking about the child to ‘all who were waiting for the liberation of Israel’ and the circle of people with whom Dorothy sat and talked. Insights were weighted in the circle, in the community, and decisions were made. Each was part of a community creating the road as they walked it…a community conspiring (which is to say: breathing together on behalf of life, on behalf of justice for the poor and disenfranchised).

Conspiring (breathing together) is the proper work of a community. Now, I have to say this—the threat of war was a constant in the life of Christ. His definitive statement at the critical moment that he is taken away for execution is ‘Put away the sword!’ Opposition to war is integral to Christ, to Dorothy Day, to the Catholic Worker, to any who would call him/herself Christian.

And because of that opposition— especially to World War II—the circulation of the Catholic Worker newspaper, which was 190,000 in 1938, shrunk to 50,500 by the end of the war. Only 11 Catholic Worker communities remained after the war. Dorothy traveled to and spent time with each in order to enspirit them. Really important work. The work of Anna. ‘To keep one another’s spirits up, the most apostolic duty of all!’

Peace is the search for justice, and the primary form of justice is the recognition that we are creatures among creatures with a responsibility for creation. This is the hour for prophets, the urgent hour for recognizing and denouncing the sterility of the world.

Anna’s spirit hovers here. Luke tells us she is a prophet! Her function is that of prophetic proclamation and all the information issued about her serves as background and justification for this. The spirit of prophecy in Israel had been absent for well over 300 years. Anna is the last prophet mentioned before Jesus assumes this role.

In our own time, this is the hour for prophets, the urgent hour to embody the long-awaited future in the shell of the present. This is the hour for prophets. The relationship between people and the earth—which we thought we could always take for granted—is frayed. It is frayed so badly that most of us feel helpless most of the time. Declarations in favor of peace sound hollow even when they are made with the best of intentions.

Peace is the search for justice, and the primary form of justice is the recognition that we are creatures among creatures with a responsibility for creation. This is the hour for prophets, the urgent hour for recognizing and denouncing the sterility of the world. This is the hour for prophets because we live in the grip of conventional wisdoms that no longer fit observable facts.

Turn on your TV or radio and try to identify the recurring motifs. One of the most common is that increased growth benefits the world, the society, the individual. Growth is desirable; more is better because it means easier, more comfortable, more secure. Increased wealth, economic health and growth are unquestionably good. Whether or not this was ever true, there is a new fact in the world. The distinct break for us in this millennium is the realization that the natural environment places finite limits on us. The ‘more’ of human desire is crashing into the limits imposed by those physical walls. If we press ahead in our current paths, at our current pace, we threaten everything in creation, and everything within ourselves.

Our gospel story is part of the episode of the Presentation of the child Jesus in the Temple. In the scene with Simeon, Mary and Joseph are amazed at what this devout man says about Jesus. Should they be startled? Mary has the word of the angel about her son’s role. The amazement might instead be understood as a kind of reverential awe that will be the reaction of many to Jesus’ words and deeds. It is the rebirth of wonder that Ferlingetti places before us. Worth waiting for. Worth giving our lives for. Worth handing on to future generations. It feels to me like a homecoming of the spirit: this is where we belong.

For what are we waiting, and in what spirit? We may be concerned about what is at the end of a waiting period. God cares about the process of waiting. Waiting can change us. Anna spoke about the child to ‘all who were waiting for God to set Israel free.’ Waiting…God had promised and centuries had passed. Some lost all hope. But there were those who still believed, still expected, still waited… Would we have had the patience? Do we have the patience? Do we believe in the kindom of God come among us? Do we believe in a world without weapons? Do we believe that the poor can be lifted up? Do we believe that justice can be realized?

Dorothy Day’s response and the response all these 40 years of the LACW are essential gospel—an old vision—so old it looks new: build community; grow in faith; serve the poor—a model of liberation in our tormented world.

Today the words of Dorothy from the postscript of The Long Loneliness are so relevant:

I found myself, a barren woman, the joyful mother of children. It is not always easy to be joyful, to keep in mind the duty of delight. The most significant thing about the Catholic Worker is poverty, some say. The most significant thing is community, others say. We are not alone any more. But the final word is love. At times it has been…a harsh and dreadful thing and our faith in love has been tried by fire. We cannot love God unless we love each other and to love we must know each other. We know him in the breaking of bread and we know each other in the breaking of bread and we are not alone anymore…We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community. It all happened while we sat there talking…and it is still going on.

Liz McAlister is a long-time peace activist, resister, and member of the Jonah House Community, Baltimore. This abbreviated homily was delivered at the Los Angeles Catholic Worker’s 40th anniversary celebrations in June 2010.

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