The People Who Walk Upside Down (with apologies to Diane Begant CSA and Joan D Chittister)

15 Dec

Isaiah 61:1-11
When Alice fell through the rabbit-hole into Wonderland, she was convinced that she had fallen right through the earth and was destined to come out where people would be upside down. She referred to such reversals as Antipathies—though she did wonder whether or not that was the right word.

Alice may not have chosen the correct word, but she was on target when it came to identifying the way we feel when our world is turned upside down. That is, of course, when the reversal that we experience resembles the collapse of the stock market, just as we have experienced over the last few months. We would be overcome by entirely different emotions if we had won the lottery. When she finally landed, Alice discovered that the world was not upside down, but it certainly was out of proportion to her size. She had to change, to get smaller in order to enter that mysterious world.

The Third Sunday of Advent invites us into a world of reversals, a world where the captives are freed, where the hungry are filled and where the rich are sent away empty. It is certainly a world where things are turned upside down. From the point of view of social order, such reversals could be considered Antipathies.

But from God’s point of view, they are the signs of transformation. In order to appreciate the strength of today’s message from Isaiah, we must remember that he was speaking to people who were dispossessed, people in need of a message of hope, a promise of some kind of economic reversal. Not unlike the message people are looking for today.

It is not that God wants to make us unhappy by turning our world upside down. Rather, God offers us the possibility of a new world. The Wonderland to which we are invited is not some mad tea party attended by an array of strange guests.

It is a world established in justice and peace, a world in which all will hear the glad tidings of salvation. It is a world in which everyone can enjoy the happiness of the bride and bridegroom or relish the fruits of the luxurious garden.

The dramatic metaphors that Isaiah employs are not meant simply to be poetic flights of fancy. They capture the essence of what we are experiencing internally far better than straightforward prose can. A wedding is certainly a sign of new and transformative life, just as a sumptuous garden typifies bountiful sustenance.

In order to enter the mysterious new world that lies before us, like Alice, we might have to undergo some kind of change. Paul in his letter to the Christians at Thessalonica is conscious of our need of transformation, for he prays that the God of peace will make us perfectly holy, blameless at the coming of the Lord.

In line with this thinking, the basis of the preaching of John the Baptist is repentance. His message today is the same as it was last week: Make straight the way of the Lord! Get rid of any obstacle that might deter his arrival. Eliminate from your lives the greed that impoverishes others, the arrogance that tries to set you above the rest, the power that makes you abusive, the selfishness that turns you in on your own concerns alone. Today we are all aware of the destructive evil that such attitudes have spawned. We suffer the consequences of their corrosive power. But our faith reminds us that we do not have to remain victims of these forces.

There is a far better way of living in the world, and on this Third Sunday of Advent we stand at its threshold. The question, however, is: Are we willing to step forward? Or are we afraid to have our world turned upside down? Are we the poor who will hear the good news of reversal, or are we the ones responsible for their poverty? Are we the broken-hearted who will be healed, or have we broken their hearts? Are we the captives who will be freed, or are we the captors who have restrained them? On what side of the reversals do we find ourselves?

Verdan Smailovic was a Bosnian. He had been born right in the heart of Sarajevo, the 4th of 5 in a highly musical family, he became a professional musician. At 37 he was the principal cellist of the prestigious Sarajevo Opera.

But this was the bleak and frightening period of 1992 when Bosnia flared into ethnic violence. The opera Theatre lay destroyed. There was no music.

Then, at 4 p.m. on May 27 1992 a long line of starving, helpless people were shelled as they waited in front of he only bakery in Sarajevo which had enough flour to make bread. Twenty to people died as Verdran Smailovic stood in his apartment building window a hundred yards away and watched it happen.

The next day, as hungry people lined up to beg for bread, certain they would die if they didn’t come to the bakery again and well aware they could die if they did, Vedran Smailovic, dressed in the black suit and tie in which he played every night until the Opera Theatre was destroyed, arrived carrying his cello and chair.

Smailovic sat down in the square and, surrounded by debris played Albinoni’s mournful “Adagio”. And, whatever the continuing danger, he came back to the square every day after that for 21 days to do the same. Over and over again, the “Adagio” sounded the memory that there are some things in the human enterprise that simply cannot be suppressed.

Today in the place where he sat there is a monument of a man in a chair playing a cello. But the monument is not to Smailovic’s music. It is to his refusal to surrender the hope that beauty could be reborn in the midst of hell, even in the midst of our own private hell, even in the midst of great reversals..[1]

Verdam Smailovics story doesn’t end there. He played the “Adagio” throughout America, even at Bill Clinton’s inauguration. He was celebrated in David Wilde’s cello piece, ‘the Cellist of Sarajevo’ which Yo-Yo Ma played at the International Cellist Festival in 1994 with Smailovic in the audience. It seems that once released, no matter how difficult or traumatic the birth, hope does indeed soar.

Advent is a time to search our hearts, to discover where, both individually and as a community, we need to change. It is a time of hope, for we are told that there is one who has the power to heal our personal brokenness, to heal our fractured families, to heal our troubled church, to heal our bleeding world. Paul tells us that he is coming; John tells us that he is already in our midst. His presence among us should make us rejoice; the saving power that he brings should give us confidence. If we open our hearts to this saving power, we can indeed transform our society; we can renew our church, we can work toward peace in the world—we can turn our world upside down.


[1] P108ff Joan D Chittister, ‘Scarred by Struggle, Transformed by Hope’, Wm. B. Erdmans

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