Stupid Contentment
3rd Sunday of Advent

Douglas P. McManaman
Dec. 14, 2014
Reproduced with Permission

the LORD has anointed me, he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed, to heal the broken-hearted, to proclaim liberty to slaves and release to the prisoners,

As I went over the readings in preparation for this homily, the thought occurred to me that to most people, these words from Isaiah would mean very little. They would have no personal relevance, because many people do not see themselves as oppressed, broken-hearted, as slaves and in prison. And that is why the message of the gospel has little relevance for so many people; they simply don't know that they are in prison, or that they are slaves.

That thought reminded me of something I recently discovered in Graeme Hunter's book on Pascal, namely Frederick Douglass' gradual awakening to the miserable condition of his own existence as a slave; Douglass was an emancipationist and former slave. We tend to assume that the miserable conditions in which the slaves lived, in the American south of the 19th century, were obvious to every slave. That was simply not the case, however. Douglass writes: "The more I read, the more I was led to abhor and detest slavery." In My Bondage and My Freedom , he describes the changes that came over him:

I was no longer the light-hearted, gleesome boy, full of mirth and play, as when I landed first at Baltimore. Knowledge had come; light had penetrated the moral dungeon where I dwelt; and, behold! there lay the bloody whip, for my back, and here was the iron chain; and my good, kind master, he was the author of my situation. The revelation haunted me, stung me, and made me gloomy and miserable. As I writhed under the sting and torment of this knowledge, I almost envied my fellow slaves their stupid contentment . This knowledge opened my eyes to the horrible pit, and revealed the teeth of the frightful dragon that was ready to pounce upon me, but it opened no way for my escape. I have often wished myself a beast, or a bird - anything, rather than a slave. I was wretched and gloomy, beyond my ability to describe. I was too thoughtful to be happy. It was this everlasting thinking which distressed and tormented me; and yet there was no getting rid of the subject of my thoughts.

The expression "stupid contentment" is striking. Hunter points out that the purpose of those words were to show those who were enslaved how much they were deceived and to inspire them not to tolerate it. He also wanted to confront slave owners with the evil of this practice, who were wont to excuse themselves by pointing to the apparent contentment of the slaves.

We overlook this today, probably because we look back at slavery within a 21st century context. They did not look at their situation in this light, but in another light, one that enabled them to be slaves without knowing their misery. Douglass himself was like that, until he began to read and to think, which resulted in a gradual enlightenment that brought him much sorrow and discontent. After that, he saw that around him were innumerable slaves blind within the darkness of " their stupid contentment ".

Unless we see our own condition in another light, rather than in the light of our own minds, we remain blind to our real condition. We are like those slaves, but those whom the grace of God begins to enlighten are like Frederick Douglass. Perhaps we can say that Christ did not come for those who live in "stupid contentment", but for the truly poor in spirit, those who know they are enslaved, prisoners, in other words, those who recognize their utter need for God. The first of the Beatitudes in the Sermon on the Mount is "Blessed are the poor in spirit, theirs is the kingdom of heaven". The poor in spirit are those who have come to recognize their condition as slaves to sin and self-seeking and their need for God's deliverance. The Beatitude that follows is "Blessed are those who mourn", that is, those who mourn their condition as slaves to sin, who mourn the blindness and darkness that permeates the world. The problem, however, is that very few people have come to this point in their lives.

Poverty of spirit is the necessary internal condition for receiving the good news. Without poverty of spirit, the news that Christ proclaims will go unrecognized; it will inevitably across as poetry. When we are not poor in spirit enough, that is, when we have not suffered enough, we simply don't recognize Christ who is the Good News in Person. And that's why John said to the Pharisees: "...there is one among you whom you do not recognize". They did not recognize him because they were rich in spirit. Jesus referred to the Pharisees as hypocrites, which means actors in Greek. They were role players, and they loved the admiration they received as a result of their positions of religious leadership.

This brings me to my second point. "Gospel" is old English (godspel), a translation of the Greek word evangelion , which means extraordinarily good news, such as the birth of a king, or a military victory. In this season it is both, the birth of a king, and the victory he came to achieve over the kingdom of darkness on Good Friday. The Good News is not a collection of propositions or a dogma, it is not an ideology. It is a person. They did not ask John whether or not has "the message" or the right ideas (orthodoxy), etc. They asked him: "Are you Elijah?" and "Are you the prophet?" the one foretold in Deuteronomy 18. It is a person they are waiting for. And John says no, he is not that Person, he is merely a voice in the desert. There is not a great deal of content to his description of himself as "a voice in the desert". John chooses to decrease so that Christ may increase.

In ancient icons, John the Baptist points to Christ, as if to say "Behold the lamb of God". His entire identity is a sign, a pointing away from himself towards Christ. He does not call attention to himself; rather, he decreases to the vanishing point. All eyes must be focused on Christ. He is the good news of our salvation; he is the lamb that God provided in answer to Isaac's question to Abraham thousands of years earlier: "Where is the lamb?" to which Abraham replied: "God will provide a lamb". It took two millennia for God to provide that lamb. The extraordinarily good news is that he has come to be sacrificed so that we may be delivered from the slavery of sin and the intellectual darkness that sin begets in us; in short, the misery of living without the grace of God and the light of faith, hope, and charity.

This life is about coming to recognize him, to recognize our liberator, our deliverer, but in order for that to happen, we must recognize our condition, our poverty, our slavery to sin, our lack of liberty. Christ came for those people, and only those people will recognize his voice, and only to them will the gospel proclamation mean anything.