You Are Neighbor: A Reflection on Advent

He is the Maker of heaven and earth, the sea, and everything in them—he remains faithful forever. He upholds the cause of the oppressed and gives food to the hungry. The Lord sets prisoners free, the Lord gives sight to the blind, the Lord lifts up those who are bowed down, the Lord loves the righteous. The Lord watches over the foreigner and sustains the fatherless and the widow, but he frustrates the ways of the wicked. — Psalm 146:6-9 tweet

God loves justice, and sets a table for food, freedom, sight, and care. The troubling and encouraging truth is that God moved into the neighborhood where we live.

The surprise of Advent is not that Messiah comes but where he comes and what he comes to do.  “I am the Alpha and the Omega,” says the Lord God, who is and who was and who is to come, the Almighty.” As a child I would picture that coming one as from above and massive, grand, and fearsome—but almighty and vast.

The writer of the psalm had a different picture of the one for whom we wait in Advent. He pictures Yahweh as the host at a neighborhood food bank and community center. In stark contrast to the powerful politicians and rulers (princes) God sets the table to give food to the hungry, to execute justice for those oppressed, to watch over strangers, widows, and orphans—vulnerable ones all who need a system that offers a new way in a context of deathliness and oppression. The new way is the dramatic picture which forms for us in Advent: Jesus moved into the neighborhood.

I was born in a neighborhood on the far south side of Chicago. It was a melting pot neighborhood of European Americans who moved into tiny bungalows on Sangamon Street—Swedish, Irish, Scottish, English, Polish, and Italian. Many of us were the children of first-generation Americans. The story of my earliest years was the story of neighborhood. 79th street for church. 59th street for furniture. 95th and Halstead for groceries. Mount Vernon for Grammar School. We played ball in the street until the next car came along. We played in the field vacated by the Steel Mill located nearby. Johnson, Petkus, Galoonagus, Maher, McCabe and Anderson.

Advent is also the story of neighborhood but it comes with a problem: Jesus in the crèche is not the problem. Angels and magi are not the trouble. What God is doing in the neighborhood is the problem. God brings justice, and sets a table for food, freedom, sight, and care. The troubling truth is that God moved into the neighborhood where we live.

It troubles because it moves us from superficial seeing to sacramental seeing: if we have eyes to see this great mystery, we see deep into everyday reality there is something more going on.  That’s where the trouble starts. If Jesus moved into the neighborhood, we must ask: “Will I follow him where he goes, learn what he does, and join him.” If Jesus inhabits the flesh, he lives in flesh; if Jesus inhabits time and space, he lives where we live—in the neighborhood of our lives. And that changes everything. Advent is a troubling declaration to an audacious invitation: if you believe what these scriptures say, you are invited to see God in your homes, schools, businesses, hospitals, community centers, banks and churches. God walking the streets as you make decisions about all of the capital that you have: spiritual, financial, social, human, and intellectual. God interested in the most human parts of your life: family and work, recreation and thinking, and everything else we do.

I pray for eyes to see the living God walking in my neighborhood in this season of Advent.

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