Mandela and John the Baptist
It is understandable that this week I’ve been thinking a lot about Nelson Mandela, the now-late former President of South Africa, Nobel Prize laureate, and leader of the anti-Apartheid movement. His death and the celebrations of his life and legacy have offered the world much to consider and much to reflect on given the storied decades the 95-year-old civil rights leader and politician witnessed and helped shape. But I think of him in a particular way today in light of the Gospel for the Third Sunday of Advent, Gaudete Sunday from the entrance antiphon taken from the Letter to the Philippians: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord Always!”).
Today’s Gospel (Matt 11:2-11) features two major figures of first-century Palestine: John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. John, the cousin of Jesus, is in prison having spoken out against the unlawful marriage of Herod. Having been called by God from before his birth to be a prophet to the nations and the forerunner of the Lord, John is getting word from his disciples that something new is underway and his own life’s work might be vindicated. Might.
Unsure of what and whether to believe, he sends his aides to Jesus to find out what his cousin has to say. The response is telling.
Like John the Baptist, Mandela spent time in prison awaiting the hope of something new, something just, something liberating, something that God promised in the way all people should be treated. However, unlike John, Mandela’s imprisonment wasn’t the result of just innocent prophesying. Whereas the ANC had originally sought to achieve their goal of overturning the white-supremicist Apartheid regime by nonviolent means, Mandela and others began to become impatient. They became convinced that the only way the oppressive leaders would hear them was if they used force. His taking up of arms and embrace of violence means was the cause of his imprisonment. Mandela was not the innocent prophet we might like to imagine today.
But in prison something began to change.
Conversion happens in various ways, especially in prison. Such was the case with Francis of Assisi, a prisoner of war who came to hear the call of the Lord when the sounds of his worldly allurements ceased behind bars. During the grueling twenty-seven years as a prisoner, Mandela’s approach began to shift. Hearing of the violence and chaos into which South Africa was falling from the outside, Mandela came to realize that nonviolent and peaceful means of compromise and negotiation were the only ways forward.
While he might not have entered prison a prophet in the biblical sense — though, he was surely a prophet in the social sense, rightly calling out injustice and racism in his day — the shifts in his worldview overtime appear to illustrate what our Second Reading from the Letter of James admonishes:
Be patient, brothers and sisters,
until the coming of the Lord.
See how the farmer waits for the precious fruit of the earth,
being patient with it
until it receives the early and the late rains.
You too must be patient.
Make your hearts firm,
because the coming of the Lord is at hand.
Do not complain, brothers and sisters, about one another,
that you may not be judged.
Behold, the Judge is standing before the gates.
Take as an example of hardship and patience, brothers and sisters,
the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord. (Jas 5:7-10)
And if there was one thing Mandela was while in prison, it was patient. James encourages all Christians to look at the prophets — from the Hebrew Scriptures and John the Baptist alike — to witness what it means to bear the hardships with patience that are necessary to seek justice and announce the in-breaking of the Reign of God.
Enduring the hardships of imprisonment for nearly three decades, the elder Mandela emerged a modern example of “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord.” His call for justice and righteousness, his call to end violence and discrimination, this was the “precious fruit” that the farmer waits for in the field, this was more like a sign of the coming of the Lord.
The coming of the Lord, what we celebrate today and all during Advent, is not just about putting the baby Jesus into the manger on Christmas Eve. It’s not about putting the “Christ” in “Christmas,” or putting Christ anywhere for that matter. It is about recognizing what the coming of Christ means.
The coming of Christ means that justice reigns and peace prevails. And it looks a little something like this:
Then will the eyes of the blind be opened,
the ears of the deaf be cleared;
then will the lame leap like a stag,
then the tongue of the mute will sing…
they will meet with joy and gladness,
sorrow and mourning will flee.
When Jesus sends this word back to John in prison, the hope that he conveys is that God’s Reign is now breaking into the world and it does not bear violence, it does not act impatiently, it does not always seem logical according to the wisdom of the world.
I believe that this word was somehow sent to Mandela in prison as well, which is why he was able to do so much to bring about good in our modern world. Gospel patience, peaceful waiting, a message of hope and healing — this is what it means to be a prophet, this is what it means to await the coming of the Lord.
Working for justice in our world with the spirit of Gospel patience and nonviolence is the surest way for us to live the call of this Third Sunday of Advent: Gaudete in Domino semper (“Rejoice in the Lord Always!”)