Nelson Mandela, who passed away this week, was a man of many names. His parents called him Rolihlahla, which means to pull the branch out of tree. He became Nelson to his teachers at the Methodist missionary school he attended. When he went underground in the 1960s, the press called him the Black Pimpernel. In prison, on Robben Island, he was known as Mdala. But according to The Globe and Mail’s obituary, the one he liked most was Madiba, the name given by his clan, a name previously carried by a legendary chief.
Nelson Mandela was a legend. He was a rare leader who stuck to his convictions, who spoke for healing when others would have sought vengeance. A man who spent long years in a tiny cell and came out larger than life, wiser, more savvy. We don’t see many like him.
He was a human being who carried many of the fiery traits of John the Baptist. And went on to live, publicly and determinedly, the gospel of Jesus. That is a journey not many of us make. But he was, indeed, a legend. Although we had all known he was sick, that the time was coming when his death would be announced, Thursday evening, I felt almost inexplicably sad. Perhaps that’s because, many days, I feel I have few examples like him to reveal to my kids, to be inspirations for them of a good and faithful and truly heroic life.
You all know that I am great fan of John the Baptist – his wild ways, his unfiltered speech, the refusal to speak anything but the truth. He is fierce in a way that is impossible not to admire. He is making way for Jesus, as he himself says, but his work is far more important than public relations. John the Baptist, though his ways are difficult and controversial, is our slap awake: to get ready, to sense a change in the wind, and to be on guard for it.
As a young man, Nelson Mandela imagined he might become a civil servant until he was arrested for participating in a student protest. Apartheid, as we know, turned him into a revolutionary. When he was captured and charged with treason and faced with execution, he was not cowed: he gave a four-hour speech that has been often quoted since, speaking of a free society in which all persons live in harmony with equal opportunity. “It is an ideal,” he said, “for which I hope to live and to achieve. But if need be, it is an ideal for which I am prepared to die.” He was spared death: instead the court sentenced him to hard labour in prison for life.
But something happened in prison that can happen only, I think, to the most remarkable people. Nelson Mandela became less like John the Baptist, more like the one whose arrival he heralded. He befriended his guards, learning to speak their language. He taught his fellow inmates to read. When he emerged from prison, as one obituary said, he had chosen to be servant, not master, to the people of South Africa. Of course we know where that long journey took him: to becoming his country’s first Black president.
When we read from the 11th chapter of Isaiah, which describes a messiah who will come to bring justice, it is easy to find the imprint of Nelson Mandela, who came to see clearly what his country needed and set aside what he himself might have personally sought. He had his blind spots – he realized too late the toll that AIDS was taking on his country and continent – but he demonstrated over and over again that he was open to having his mind changed, to learning a new perspective even late in life. That reading from Isaiah speaks of “the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counseling and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.” Mandela went into prison a wolf, and walked out to live with the lambs rather than devour them. Can’t you see him also woven through our psalms — a leader who sought to heal his country by bringing people together and urging them to find common causes and leave behind a painful past? Our psalmist writes:
6Let him come down like rain upon | the mown field,
like showers that wa- | ter the earth.
7In his time may the | righteous flourish;
and let there be an abundance of peace till the moon shall | be no more.
In the end, Nelson Mandela lived a long, brilliant life. We grieve his loss and sense his absence because we seek his replacement and come up short. Perhaps, setting history aside, his example of leadership – his journey through it, his ability to see clearly and adjust his path accordingly, to be fierce when needed and conciliatory when necessary – is the nuance we need to pass on to the next generation. Few leaders can claim the best parts of John the Baptist and the finest traits of Jesus. But that is the making of legend, however many names he carries. And it is this sustaining hope — of what might yet be possible, and who might yet come – that should truly stir out hearts during this season of Advent. Amen.