Matthew 3:1-12

An Advent Lesson from the Miners in Chile

By The Rev. David Somerville

On the 12th of October, thirty-three trapped Chilean miners ascended to the surface of the Earth.  As spectacular as that event was, their exodus might never have happened, were it not for the miners’ faith in action. Theirs is a story worth telling.  It will deepen our appreciation of what should be a gentle season, namely Advent. It will empower many to reflect on the variety of December things people do, and let them see how some of those things enhance their spirituality, while certain other habits of our culture can do it violence.

There is no evidence that the miners understood themselves to be “theologians” per se. But that is not important. What really matters is what they did to successfully end their entombment. These thirty-three inspired men made a deliberate choice on how to live with their nightmare, and they turned the nightmare into a challenge by forming a mini-society with a division of labor based on the skills of each personality. One, for instance was a natural leader with years of experience. Another had some expertise in first aid and hygiene, and yet a third was chosen to be their spiritual leader, or chaplain.  St. Paul would recognize this as their appreciation of one another’s diverse gifts necessary for the miners to become a functioning body.   By becoming such they offered the mutual support they needed to renounce their individual panic and despair, identify tasks, and became a community of faith.

Apparently most, if not all of the miners, had a Roman Catholic background, so they knew how to pray together for God’s mercy. But more than that, what appears to have happened is that they developed a religious life of real substance. Their religiousness was not about abstract, formal ideas concerning the nature of God and the human soul. It was about the things each individual had to do again and again for the sake of the others in the group, following a structured daily pattern. Each man was also bound by his agreed commitment to a higher authority than the authority of the lone self. There was no choice.  The possibility of surviving to live depended on it.

There are two ancient associations that come with the term, “religion”. One who is “religious” is a person that has agreed to be bound. The second association is the idea of a repeated series of practices that must be done daily for the well being of the others, who are likewise bound.  So it makes sense, then, that when we hear of people in a community living under a set of vows, we also understand that a member of such a group is “a religious”, as, for example, a Benedictine, or Franciscan, is “a religious”.  The miners were profound and effective at practicing religion by having a shared vocation. It was founded on the common values of selfless humility and submission, and the need to repent by each individual’s laying aside all personal wants in order to cooperate with each other, and follow the directives of their leader. They trusted their foreman, a Señor Luis Urzua to direct their life together.  By doing this, the miners taught the world that God trusts the faithful to live in commitment to the neighbor’s well being.  When that teaching and practice is done, the Source of mercy and salvation is invited down from above.

During the entrapment, observers all over the world were inspired by how the miners worked at their vocation to survive their situation. What was so invaluable about the miners’ “theology” is that it did what abstract conversations in words like the writings of this sermon cannot do. All the ideas preachers talk about may be logically consistent, but sermons and essays alone just don’t have the meaty, tangible stuff that make up the events of specific times and places.  So ideas alone cannot find their proper homes in the on-going story of salvation. They need the flesh and blood that can anchor them to their places so that specific events can happen and become real history.

The miners were the kind of People John the Baptizer  loved because they were so down to earth…  Well!… Yes,  two thousand feet down under it. There they repented of their ordinary behaviors in life, and started moving in another spiritual direction.

Many of the details of exactly what the miners did to survive, and how they did it – especially during the first seventeen days of utter darkness and silence from above – will never be known. There will no doubt be varied accounts of who did what with whom to ration their supplies, bolster their spirits, and practice the necessary hygiene to preserve their health.   But how much care should we give to such details?  The fact is the miners got out, and left the on-site medics with incredibly little to do. In fact, one of them, Edison Peña, came to New York and ran in the Marathon less than a month later! So this is a story of a victory in faith that does not need any embroidering.  It already is a parable, a “story-lesson” of what we are called to be as a church.  It is a resource to quicken our personal theology and praxis.  All we have to do is take time to set aside the usual distractors of the season like, for instance, the noisy music of the streets, and apply it to ourselves.

Music?  What’s the matter with that?  Nothing really in and of itself. The Salvation Army and other volunteers in their visitations to nursing homes and hospitals are a yearly seasonal blessing to be sure.   But not all the music we hear in December is helpful.  Some of it can dull our senses and weaken our memory of the miners’ miracle. This music does not really speak to the deeper mystery of the Incarnation, and it is indiscriminately everywhere in the economy of our life.

No, that’s not quite true. There is a place where the excesses of seasonal music is not played – during worship in Episcopal and other Churches that value the rhythms and themes of the liturgical year! In these sanctuaries one’s head will not be filled filled with the kind of stuff that is piped into the elevator at  the Macy’s, the I. Magnins, and  the Walmarts of our land.  There is a reason for that:  A good Christmas is the climax of a peoples’ holy Advent, not the consequence of irrationally spent money induced by retailers and importers. If the managers of those industries had perfect control over the environment, they would want the weather to be chilly, but not too cold, just a little snow, but not too much, and lots of mood music. The mood music they can control.

The ambience of a pretty December is nice.  But there is no surprise at what pastoral counselors tell us: that when the music begins to play the day after Thanksgiving, a spike in the incidents of stress among their clients follows.  So maybe it’s a good idea to go to Church, and get away from the pre-holiday noise. We may not be buried under tons of rock like the miners were, but the brokenness of our human nature, disguised with the glitter of our vanity’s tinsel, can be just as oppressive in its own way — maybe even more so. It can distract us from the progress of the upward movement of our souls to the final consumation with the One who is the source of our eternal life.

The gift from Chile is infinitely better than what we get in a world that places such a high value on its material standard of living. The miners’ exodus unto salvation is the example of how their flesh and blood was exercised to make them them fit and ready for their return. They taught that salvation is more than anything humankind can do for itself, but it is something initiated by a God who loves us, and who expresses that love by inviting covenants with us for our cooperation with God and one another. The miners were ready to cooperate and receive the first user of the capsule, a rescue worker who made the opening descent.

As long as we, the people of God, are living our mortal lives in faith, we are called to continue on a journey from the day of our baptisms to the blessing of a good and holy death because we know that it is the gateway (or escape capsule, if you will) to eternal life.

Like Lent, Advent is a good time to reflect on what is not needed to live in the holy wholesomeness of a confident journey. But the messages Christians get in this twenty-first century civilization tend to lead them toward decisions to spend their resources on baggage they don’t really need.  So it is a good idea to take time each day and reflect a bit on what we can do without.  What kinds of unnecessary baggage are we carrying? Stuck for an answer?  Then just imagine yourself asking the miners, What did you discover that you could live without?  Meditating on that for a while could be helpful.

…The miners’ story begins with the report of their first seventeen days.  Then, living with no signs from above, they decided to believe anyway that their gift of life was not to be forsaken by despair with the option of suicide.  Instead, they got to work, exercising their mutual  responsibility and interdependence upon one another. They became a living church down there!  The indisputable proof of that lies in the fact that Death passed them over!  By the miners’ faithfulness, a transfiguring glimpse of people in the restored image of God for just a moment in time was ours.  Pray for the grace to remember it.

So, then.  What about all the seasonal music with chestnuts, delightful fires, pouting children, and Parson Brown in it? They may remind us that this is December, But it does not help our attention to Advent and our obligations to prepare for the coming of our rescuer, Christ the King, and it does not help us to remember the kind of life and witness with which the miners had to be engaged.  Yes, of course its fun to go to those parties and places where we’ll hear the strains of The Little Drummer Boy.  But let’s not forget that the miners had some really  important things to do, and so do we.
Copyright 2010 David Somerville.  Used by permission.