“What should we be doing?” I’ll say one thing for George W. Bush … he’s not afflicted by overwork. … A friend of mine, a teacher, was telling me how busy school kids are, going non-stop from dawn to dusk—from class to class, 2 or 3 meetings in the lunch break, then after school stuff, excessive homework… “What kind of message is that to be giving them?” he asked me, “What kind of training?” Well, certainly not training for the Bush style of government. Dubya is famed for knocking off at 5pm yet still managing to fit in an hour or two for napping, playing video games, or getting that all-important massage. And, best of all, he does it all with a smile (well a smirk anyway) and not a trace of guilt. Can you imagine Earnest Al playing solitaire and doing it without shame?
What about ourselves? Isn’t Advent a great time for shame? All those things on the to-do list to shame you? And those are only the sins of omission. Wait till we get to the stuff we’ve done!
Shame came late to our family tree but once it arrived it coloured everything. According to some scientists there are just nine basic affects, the physical responses that underlie our feelings. There’s interest and enjoyment. There’s surprise. There’s fear and distress and anger. There’s disgust and there’s dis-smell. And there’s shame. Shame came late. Every human infant knows it. The primates do. Dogs too. But not cats, not snakes, or any of our older ancestors. Because you have to be pretty clever to feel shame. You have to be bright enough to think something good is coming to be able to feel the shame of having it denied you.
Here’s the classic description of shame. You are walking down the street and you make out the shape of someone you know up ahead. You are excited and find yourself rushing up behind them and, just as you get their attention, you realise they are not who you think they are. But even before you consciously have that thought your body does something: your eyes drop; you avert your head; and you blush.
When was the last time you felt shame or embarrassment? … Shame happens whenever desire outruns fulfilment. I feel shame whenever anyone asks how my dissertation is going, or notices I’ve put on weight. I have shame dreams: Here I am on a Sunday morning, standing right here … only I can’t find my homily … or can’t read the words … or turn out to be vested in the altogether.
We all know shame. Babies show it. But it is a complex experience. And as grown ups we have made it even more complex than the basic physical response. We knit shame into fantastic shapes of embarrassment, mortification, humiliation. We know what it’s like to be looked at with pity. To be laughed at. To be caught in the act.
Shame gets tangled up in all that is most important to us. How we look. What we are worth. Money. Sex. Power. And, of course, religion. Shame was born in the garden of Eden. Suddenly Adam and Eve know that they are naked. Watch them blush, eye’s averted, as they hide themselves. Eden ends where shame begins. Morality begins there too … and religion. Before shame we walked arm-in-arm with God in the garden and thought nothing of it. Our desire never outran its fulfilment. But since then we have been hiding from God, averting our eyes. And one of the ways we avert our eyes is … religion. We pray our prayers at least in part to keep God at arms length. We do our good deeds lest God should draw near and we be shamed. Our whole liturgy is a conflicted attempt to bring God close while keeping God at a symbolic distance. What if God were not just here today in symbol—not just in bread and wine and word and worship—but here naked and near and irresistible? Wouldn’t we feel such a desire?! And such shame.
All our readings today speak of the nearness of God. But watch God get more distant with each of them. Zephaniah’s God is right in our midst. Paul’s is “near” but the Baptist’s God only manages to be “coming.”
And look at who it is coming in John’s mind: a monstrous messiah with winnowing fan in hand, eager to clear the threshing floor, to harvest the wheat, to burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. Yikes! No wonder John finds himself shameful, not even worthy to tie his shoelaces. And no wonder John is busy shaming everyone else onto their best behaviour. Don’t get me wrong: he is shaming them into something good—sharing food and shelter; giving up unjust profits; setting aside violence and exploitation. If only we had a society that was half that good! But even if we did it wouldn’t be the kingdom. Because the kingdom is the place where shame ends and justice begins again purely for love’s sake. And religion … religion is no longer needed because we have God, and we have our neighbour, and we have our own selves. The God who comes in Advent is not John’s avenging God of sharp sickle and burning brand but the sickly son of refugees. Jesus has lived with us. We’ve watched him grow, inch by inch, into someone who shamelessly gathers the shameful chaff. The only unquenchable fire the one in his eyes. The only winnowing the one we do ourselves.
Jesus is Zephaniah’s God. He has lifted the judgement against us. He is here among us. And he is happy. He is so glad to be here with us. It moves him to tears to be sitting next to you. To tears and to laughter. And when we sing in joy he sings too. Can you hear God sing joyfully because of you? The way someone sings at a celebration?
How could shame survive that?! With Jesus among us desire can never outrun fulfilment.
December 17th, 2000