Fellow Passengers: This week’s Prophetic Passage* (Isaiah 45:1-7) transports me to la Marina barrio of Matanzas, Cuba. La Marina lies near the Yumuri River and the Bay of Matanzas, and has historically been one of the more impoverished areas of the city. The legacy of discrimination and oppression brought on by the coffee and sugar industries is felt strongly in this port neighborhood, as it is populated primarily by the descendants of African slaves who worked the port where the products went to market. Santeria, the syncretistic religion that the Africans developed, using the veneer of Catholicism to infuse the ancestor worship and rituals of their Yorùbá faith, is prevalent in la Marina. One aspect of the pre-revolution barrio of la Marina was the prevalence of prostitutes, serving the international community of sailors who came to port day in and day out. In a documentary about life in la Marina, an elderly Santeria priestess remembers her childhood, a time of abject poverty and hunger for many in the neighborhood. She breaks down as she remembers the Saviors who rescued her and many other children, providing food and much needed medicines to the families living on the edge. Who were these Saviors, these ungidos (anointed ones) as she describes them? The neighborhood prostitutes. It makes sense, when you realize that these street corner messiahs were the only ones in the barrio with access to cash. The ladies of the evening began moonlighting, or “sunlighting” to be more precise: coming off the nightshift to work as daytime social workers, they made sure families had what they needed to survive. The elderly Marina woman wept as she recounted how many of her generation owed their very lives to these angels of mercy.
The story reminds me that the messiahs God anoints sometimes emerge from surprising spaces. Lest we think that these Marina messiahs were the first of their kind, we need only read the prophet Isaiah in today’s passage. In one of those sweeping statements of universalism that is a trademark of Isaiah, he names the Persian King Cyrus as the Christ figure, the Messiah, for the exilic community. The words Christ and Messiah literally mean anointed one, and the prophet proclaims that Cyrus, this Persian practitioner of the Zoroastrian faith, was the anointed one (ungido in the Spanish Bible) God chose to break the bonds of oppression and liberate the Hebrew exiles, restoring them to the Promised Land. Isaiah hears God’s voice, speaking to Cyrus: I summon you by name and bestow on you a title of honor, though you do not acknowledge me. The sacred oil had spilled out beyond the confines of the confessing covenant community, and had been poured onto the head of a pagan Persian King. Cyrus’ religious legacy was not bound by his own Zoroastrian practices, though; history shows him to be Iran’s Jefferson, enacting policies of religious liberty enabling all minority religions to exist and thrive. The prophet sees in this an opportunity to emphasize the truth that there is only one God, no matter how many different cultural contexts and rituals and languages of faith and religious practices we create. In Isaiah’s mind, the One God is behind it all, forming light and creating darkness, bringing both weal and woe, anointing believer and unbeliever alike. So it’s not a stretch for Isaiah to name Cyrus as an anointed Christ figure.
In 2003, Cyrus was on the stage of history again, as Iran’s first recipient of the Nobel Peace Prize, human rights activist Shirin Ebadi, paid homage to him in her acceptance speech: I am an Iranian, a descendant of Cyrus the Great. This emperor proclaimed at the pinnacle of power 2,500 years ago that he ‘would not reign over the people if they did not wish it.’ He promised not to force any person to change his religion and faith and guaranteed freedom for all. I wonder if one day a woman of la Marina might just win the Nobel Peace Prize for work in human rights, and in her acceptance speech, pay homage to one of the messianic prostitutes who liberated her from hunger and poverty. Given our historical precedents, it’s not such a stretch.
How about you? Where does this Prophetic Passage take you on your journey of faith? Feel free to comment, and share with friends on Facebook, Google+, Twitter, email, etc.