Advent: A Call for Just Relationships
“Thank you for being our friends.”
These were the words spoken by a Tseltal-Mayan Elder in 2008 during the celebration marking the 50th anniversary of the Jesuit mission in Bachajón, Chiapas, Mexico. This story of friendship was told by Fr Arturo Estrada SJ, on a recent speaking tour hosted by Canadian Jesuits International (CJI) last November 2019. This simple, yet profound declaration of friendship was remarkable given the context.
Fr Arturo mentioned that when the Jesuits first arrived in Chiapas in 1958, the Tseltal were practically an enslaved people to a small but powerful group of landowners. And given the painful history of colonialization that Indigenous people experienced at the hands of both state and Church, the Tseltal had every reason to be wary: “Who were these Jesuits and what were their intentions?” Only time and the nature of their engagement would tell.
A declaration of gratitude to celebrate fifty years of friendship and community revealed a significant transformation of the relationship. After centuries of harm done through domination, a deep transformation in the relationship had occurred through friendship and mutuality.
The story of the Tseltal and the Jesuits in Bachajón makes me think of the advent readings for the second Sunday of Advent;
“The wolf shall live with the lamb, the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and the fatling together, and a little child shall lead them. The cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox. The nursing child shall play over the hole of the asp, and the weaned child shall put its hand on the adder’s den.” (Isaiah 11:6-8)
These provocative images invoke a radical transformation of power and relationship. For the “wolf to live with the lamb,” one can only imagine the depth and degree of transformation needed to take place for both of them: the lamb moving from justifiable fear to trust and the wolf from oppression to solidarity. Such seemingly impossible transformations must have their source in the work of God.
This week’s advent gospel reading, taken from Matthew, quotes the prophet Isaiah as a way to understand the ministry of John the Baptist. He is one, “…crying out in the wilderness: ‘Prepare the way of the Lord, make his paths straight.’” (Matthew 3:3)
We are jolted by our introduction to John both through his description and his message of rebuke toward the Pharisee’s and Sadducee’s, the religious/political leaders of his day.
“…You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” (Matthew 3:7)
These words were not exactly taken from the latest edition of How to win friends and influence people, they are words meant to invoke radical change. Transformation needed to take place among the political/religious leaders of Israel, from domination and alliance with the Empire, to that of being with and for the people.
The messianic vision of John and the ministry of Jesus were aligned with the vision of Isaiah’s peaceable kingdom, attained not through domination but rather through justice. The Psalmist reinforces this idea through the following prayer for the ruler:
“May he defend the cause of the poor of the people, give deliverance to the needy, and crush the oppressor.” (Psalm 72:4)
In the wake of Fr Arturo’s visit to Canada and in this time of preparation to celebrate the coming of God among us, I am grateful and inspired to reflect deeper on this radical call for transformation. In gratitude, I am open to grow in awareness of how Indigenous communities, both in Canada and around the world, have suffered so much personal pain and hardship through systems of domination.
I am inspired through the witness of Fr Arturo’s presentation regarding the transformative relationship between the Tseltal and the Jesuits. The Spirit seems to be very much behind this new way of modeling ‘just relationships’ through accompaniment, solidarity and mutuality.
Fr Arturo described four ways in which the Jesuits are accompanying the Tseltal people which has allowed this relationship to evolve: 1. accompaniment in land reclamation; 2. solidarity for Indigenous rights for political autonomy based on Indigenous values and traditions, rather than through the political party system;
3. solidarity in economic justice and sustainability; and 4. mutuality expressed through the strengthening of the Indigenous church through synthesis with the Mayan Rite, which acknowledges the value and importance of the Mayan worldview and spirituality, and as approved by the Vatican.
Reading the advent passages and reflecting on Fr Arturo’s visit with us at CJI has made me wrestle with the following questions: How can I change? How can I enter into a deeper conversation with my brothers and sisters from the Global South? Am I really listening to their stories? How can I undo oppression in my relationships, both personally and systemically?
Christmas is a time of celebrating the coming of God among us to establish right and just relationships. May we be filled with this ‘peace and vision’ of God.