Saying goodbye during Advent

Reading and reflecting on the beautiful and mysterious  Advent antiphons while watching  scenes from the FNB stadium in Johannesburg where the memorial service for Nelson Mandela is underway.

Blessed are they that suffer persecution for justice’ sake, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven (Matthew 5:10).

Deafening sound of the singing and chanting in the stadium, the crowds coming in drenched with rain, celebrating and mourning together. Those long bitter years of Struggle not even a memory for many, but I look at the older men and women covering their heads from the  rain and  lines from Isaiah come to me from the  years of  Bible Study groups and  liberation theology  meetings in townships. What Madiba represented for so many through the long years of imprisonment and  oppression. The last great liberation leader of the 20th century and  even as I think that I am also  conscious of ‘s  critique, the  sour taste in many South Africans’ mouths when we think of the ANC that was for so long associated with  Mandela, the party he led and to which he remained loyal all his life.

Two key facts remain obliterated by this celebratory vision. In South Africa, the miserable life of the poor majority broadly remains the same as under apartheid, and the rise of political and civil rights is counterbalanced by the growing insecurity, violence and crime. The main change is that the old white ruling class is joined by the new black elite. Second, people remember the old African National Congress that promised not only the end of apartheid, but also more social justice, even a kind of socialism. This much more radical ANC past is gradually obliterated from our memory. No wonder that anger is growing among poor, black South Africans.

But even for those of the 21st century, the wholehearted  admiration is still there, the  unassailable memory of that intransigeant stand  for justice, a man who earned teh right to speak of forgiveness and call for peace.

“Righteousness shall be the belt around his waist, and faithfulness the belt around his loins.” Isaiah 11:4-5

What would he make of this  international jamboree of politicians and  American or British celebrities, the vapid idealising and  sentimentality? So many of his old fellow prisoners and long-time comrades have gone ahead through the gates of death: Oliver Tambo, Walter and Albertina Sisulu, Amina Cachalia, Reggie September, Kader Asmal, Govan Mbeki.Who knows what history might still learn from those who sacrificed so much?

And ahead of us, as the jacaranda trees and agapanthus  soften the heat-baked streets with shades of blue, we have the O Antiphons echoing in our hearts as we move through the  last weeks of Advent, anticipating, preparing. On Sunday Madiba’s body will be buried deep in the red earth at his tribal home in Qunu and his journey will have come full circle since he was born there  beyond the Kei River into the Thembu clan under British colonialism in 1918. The mystery of any human life, the mystery of a particular life dedicated to freedom and  a vision of human tolerance.

O Wisdom, coming forth from the mouth of the Most High,
reaching from one end to the other,
mightily and sweetly ordering all things:
Come and teach us the way of prudence.

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