Summary: Two obstacles must be removed before we may receive the peace God wants to give us, so long delayed and frustrated: our false pride and our negative spirit of self-accusation. Then His victory will be ours.
The neighborhood, if you could call it that, was one of the most rundown and poverty-stricken in the city. For fifty years the housing had decayed, and, as the original residents left, absentee landlords jammed far too many people into the old dwellings. Diseases became epidemic, and fires not only destroyed decayed properties but also took the lives of the poor people who tried to live there. And so about forty years ago a group of Catholic Church activists created plans for a new urban village, a place that could give decent housing to families displaced by the demolition of what they all agreed was a slum. Enlisting an order of sisters, a nearby parish, and even a Catholic high school, this group built the new place, with amenities no one had ever put into subsidized housing before. They named their village of new expectations with a phrase from the Latin liturgy, “Sursum Corda.” “Sursum corda” means, “Lift up your hearts.” It suggests that what God is about to do at the Communion table will bring hope and joy and peace; so if you are depressed, lift up your hearts. If you feel guilty, you are forgiven, lift up your hearts. If you feel ashamed, be ashamed no more, lift up your hearts. “Sursum corda”. The name was given that new housing because they felt that those who would live there would find encouragement in a troubled city.
And, it would seem, they did everything right. They built it so that traffic could not run through constantly. They made the homes as comfortable as possible. They organized financing so that poor people could get loans to start home ownership. And more than that, the order of sisters moved in to do ministry, and legions of students from Georgetown University signed on to provide tutoring for the children. It seemed as though all the dreams of those who were to live there had come true, and there would no longer be any pointless waiting for things that never arrive. Now there was hope and help. Sursum corda, lift up your hearts. It had happened.
But things changed. Less than twenty years after Sursum Corda had been created, it became a seriously problem-filled place. Some of the properties had been misused. Others had been foreclosed. Worst of all, cocaine dealers had discovered its hidden courtyard and had made it a place to do a thriving business, concealed from the eyes of the police. Cocaine dealing then led to conflict over turf, and guns appeared. The battles become more and more intense. The nuns left, fearful for their own safety. And in 2004 a fourteen-year-old girl, Princess Hansen, was killed, execution-style, probably because she had witnessed a shooting a few days earlier. With that incident, all hope was drained out of Sursum Corda. All the bright possibilities were ruined. And peace was once again only a distant dream. Those who had created Sursum Corda as a place where people could lift up their hearts must surely have in despair bowed their heads and said, “There is no peace on earth, for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Today in fact the talk is that Sursum Corda will be demolished and some other housing experiment put in its place. Something else to wait for? Something else to invest vain hopes in? How do you wait for something more when all your efforts have come to naught? What obstacles must be removed to get from this desolate place to somewhere better? Is it only a hollow mockery, “Lift up your hearts”?
The prophet known to Bible scholars as Trito-Isaiah confronted much the same kind of context. Only a few years earlier it had seemed that all was to be well again. The Persian king had released the captive peoples, and they were on the way home, expecting to rebuild Jerusalem, reconstruct the Temple, and create new prosperity. No stopping Judah this time! They were on the march, and theirs would be a great and fruitful nation. Let’s go, Judah, we are on the move!
But it stalled. It never quite came together. The new prosperity was taking a lot longer than anyone had expected. The peace for which they had longed was still far off, with other nations sniping at them. Judah would have to wait and wait again for all she had thought would come to her after her long exile. And so, again, how do you wait when your hopes have been built up and then dashed? How do you wait positively, wait actively, when it looks as though what you have dreamed about and what you have worked for are just not coming?
How, indeed, in our time, a time not unlike that of the people of Judah after their return? Our economy is suddenly unstable, our futures are not clear. We are fighting foreign wars and guarding against terrorism in the homeland. Nothing is as stable as once it seemed. The gains we made in these last several years have been eroded. As Gabriel says in the play, “Green Pastures”, “Everything’s not nailed down is comin’ up loose.” How do we wait for it to be put back together and secured again? How can we wait for joy to come?