The gift and challenge of Authority

Advent Prayer—Week 3, December 14, 2020
This reflection was shared during our Praying With The Sisters live-streamed Advent prayer on Facebook. A Nun’s Life was joined by guest Sister LaDonna Manternach, BVM. She is a member of the Sisters of Charity of the Blessed Virgin Mary, Dubuque, IA, and serves on her congregation’s leadership team.

(The video recording of our prayer can be found below the blog.)

Matthew’s story of the chief priests and elders challenging Jesus’ authority reminds me of a recent commercial. A boy, about age 9, sits on the stairs in his family home, and he declares, “Sharing, I don’t mind it, but…” After naming a toy and his favorite mint ice cream as items he will share if he has to, he laments that he must also share the family’s woefully slow Internet with “the whole family, at the same time. That’s pushing a man too far.”

Obviously, a nine-year-old has little authority to make proclamations like this. The ad annoys me most because this child has put himself over everyone else in the family – he really doesn’t understand the essence of sharing or family dynamics since he’s not talking to anyone who could change the situation.

Imagine a similar storyline but with chief priests and elders in the Temple who are applying their authority over Jesus and challenging his right to teach there. They see themselves alone as the experts in Jewish law and the scriptures. They want to quickly put this young preacher in his place – he hasn’t trained as a rabbi, yet everyone calls him that; he’s not from a priestly family line, much less being from the nowhere town of Nazareth. AND, he insists that God is close to peoples’ hearts, he even forgives sins(!); that’s pushing the limit – only God can forgive sins! These local leaders were really struggling with Jesus’ interpretation of God’s law, and they ultimately, and reluctantly, admitted to God’s authority over them.

What is your “authority” story? How have you exercised your status or education in your life? Have you ever been challenged to let go of your personal authority? What does authority have to do with Advent joy and hope, anyway?

When I finished my undergraduate degree in music education, I was ready to teach! It didn’t take long to discover that I was not the only teacher in the room – my students taught me a lot – about myself. Personally, I had found Joy in learning the music, being touched by its poetry, and performing in a group together. My Hope was that my students would experience that same joy in themselves through the creative, musical processes. My only authority was finding a way to make it possible for them.

Our scriptural challenge today is to consider the grounding of our personal authority – God. Those who abuse their authority put others under themselves, making them feel small or unseen – the undocumented immigrant, the person of color, the transgender woman, the political opposite, Mother Earth. When one rightly uses authority, they raise up others; they magnify the other’s gifts, they see God present in them. In what ways do I use my privileged authority to speak and act for justice?

The admission of humility in Psalm 25 juxtaposed with today’s Gospel, foreshadows Mary’s response to Elizabeth’s greeting, which we’ll hear in the days leading up to Christmas; it expresses God’s authority beautifully:
     You have mercy on those who fear you in every generation.
     You have shown the strength of your arm,
     You have scattered the proud in their conceit.
     You have cast down the mighty from their thrones and lifted up the lowly.
     You have filled the hungry with good things, and the rich you have sent away empty.

Now, God asks us, “By what authority are you doing what you do? Is it divine or is it human?”