We are in a season of the celebration of our faith, from the celebration of the Virgin of Guadalupe on December 12th to the celebration of the birth of Jesus on Christmas. Yet for those who attend church, there is one more birth we celebrate in our faith: the birth of John the Baptist.
Like other mothers, I am trying to teach my son about John the Baptist and the lessons he taught during these Holy Days.
John, born to Mary’s cousin Elizabeth, miraculously in her old age, offers us another kind of promise and another kind of challenge. From the tired old bones of Zechariah and Elizabeth came a powerful voice from the grassroots who would go out to mobilize and energize a discouraged and oppressed people. Their faith had been undermined by their own religious leadership who had become corrupt, comfortable and were deeply compromised to their Roman conquerors.
John called for the people to return to their faith and offered them a sacrament of baptism in the river – far away from the temple where the leadership dressed in fine clothes and claimed to represent the God who had once saved them from their oppressors in Egypt. When some of those leaders came around to watch, John called them hypocrites and snakes and asked them, “Who told you about the God that saves his people?”
The millions of our people who are forced to leave their homes to find work in other countries, make dangerous journeys that often take their lives and then try to raise their families in hostile, hate filled societies are certainly in need of faith to sustain them. Yet too often we place our faith in the wrong people, in the same hypocritical leaders who have led us down the path to continued oppression. We need to take a lesson from those countries in Latin America which have taken their destinies into their own hands.
The people of Paraguay live in one of the poorest countries in Latin America. Early in their history 5 ut of every 6 of their people had been killed in a war of genocide orchestrated by the European conquerors. They suffered under a government that gave away their wealth and the fruits of their labor to the rich in the United States. Then suddenly they turned the page and rose up electing a former Bishop, Fernando Lugo, as their President. That country is now turning its resources back to the people, beginning with the poor.
President Lugo attributes the political transformation of Paraguay to a movement which defined freedom as “freedom from all the social structures that reinforce our selfishness, as well as the personal decisions that result in a fixation on self.” Lugo also says that the transformation came from the social movements – not from any political party. No matter what happens with the government, the people of Paraguay have been reborn with a spirit of solidarity.
Those of us who live on the continent of North America, including my country of Mexico, have long been dominated by the ideas of the rich 1% in the United States. Those ideas have raised up greed and selfishness as good things that make a country and its people rich and powerful. If we accept those ideas we will continue to be oppressed.
We need to purify our social movements, the movements that defend the rights and lives of our people, following the example of John the Baptist. Our community organizations are too dependent on grants from the rich, the fat salaries of executive directors. Our unions are too corrupted by their political alliances and the perks and privileges of the leadership.
That purification needs to start in our families. We need to teach our children to be unselfish. We need to show them the power of solidarity. And we need to listen to President Lugo when he says we must first look to raise up the poorest people amongst us, those who have been forced from their homes to find work to feed their families.
The story of John and Jesus has another lesson. John came to make the way ready for Jesus. If we purify and rededicate ourselves, God will come into our lives in powerful ways that we cannot even imagine. These Holy Days of December are meant to prepare us for the year to come. They tell us in the words of St. Paul, that “For Freedom, Christ has set us free.” We are free to set a new direction. We are free to rely on each other out of our concern for each other, out of our concern for the poorest among us, out of our solidarity.