First Sunday of Advent
November 29, 1998
“Beating Swords into Plowshares”
First Reading: Isaiah 2:1-5
Responsorial Psalm: Psalm 22:1-9
Second Reading: Romans 13:11-14
Gospel: Matthew 24:37-44
The season of Advent can be a bit confusing. In our secular culture, we are already preparing for Christmas, and even most Christians think of Advent as such preparation. But in our worship, Advent is divided into two parts. Only on December 17th do we begin our immediate preparations for Christmas. In this first part of the season we are preparing for a different coming of the Lord. Since today is the First Sunday of Advent, I thought it might be a good idea to collect our thoughts about the coming of Christ. We often hear about the coming of the Lord, but what images are brought to mind? When last I asked that question, I received answers such as “fire”, “famine” and “destruction”. Another image brought to mind was that of Jesus returning on the clouds in majesty.
I would like to share the following parable. It is a simple story:
One day God decided she would reveal herself to a king and a peasant and sent an angel to inform the two of the divine decision.
The angel first approached the king and announced, “O king, God has deigned to reveal herself to you in whatever way you choose. In what manner do you want God to appear?”
Seated self-importantly on his throne, surrounded by adoring subjects, the king proclaimed, “How else would I wish to see God except in majesty and power? Therefore, show God to me in the full glory of power.”
God granted the king’s wish and materialized as a bolt of lightning that immediately destroyed the king and his court. Not a speck of them remained.
The angel then appeared to the peasant and said, “God deigns to reveal herself to you in whatever way you choose. How do you wish to see God?”
The peasant scratched his chin, puzzled a while and finally said, “I am a poor man and not worthy to see God face to face. But if it is God’s will to be revealed to me, let it be in those things with which I am most familiar. Let me see God in the earth I till, the water I drink and the food I eat. Let me see God in the faces of my family, neighbors and--if God deems it good for me and others--even in my own reflection as well.”
God granted the wish and the peasant lived happily ever after.
It is interesting that whenever I ask about the coming of the Lord, most of the images center around what we commonly refer to as the Second Coming of Christ--the end of time. I would like to suggest that many Christians focus on the wrong things. First of all, you can take my word for it or not, but I assure you I am correct when I say that Jesus is not coming back soon--no matter what the bumper sticker on the car in front of you proclaims! Still, we do live in anticipation of Jesus’ return. In the past I have suggested that when each of us dies, that, in fact, is the end of the world for us. That becomes Jesus’ second coming for us. That day and that death can occur at any time. Today’s scriptures, and those throughout the Advent season, caution us to be prepared. So how do we prepare for the coming of the Lord?
It seems that the best preparation for Jesus’ return is contained in the parable I just shared, namely to recognize the many ways that Jesus is already coming into our lives. Each time we gather for Mass, Jesus comes into our lives. Each time we share a meal with family and friends, or for that matter even with strangers, Jesus comes into our lives. Each time we encounter a homeless person on the streets, Jesus comes into our lives. We do not need to isolate ourselves on a mountaintop or at the seashore to find God. We need only look for the many Advents of our God in the ordinary day-to-day living out of our lives.
There is a subtle connection between this idea of recognizing how God enters our lives and the wonderful passage from Isaiah in today’s first reading. One of the best-known passages in all of the scripture, both Old and New Testaments, comes from this reading: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks. One nation shall not raise a sword against another, nor shall they train for war again.” These words are so inspiring that they are carved and visualized in a stone statue outside the United Nations--a gift of the former Soviet Union. I grew up, like perhaps many of you, being taught that the Soviets were our enemies. In Reaganesque language it was even more severe, for he called them “the evil empire.” As the statue outside the United Nations building suggests, even people we perceive as enemies can be deeply moved by Isaiah’s imagery.
I would even suggest that those who begin wars frequently are in the pursuit of peace. Unfortunately, they act from the misguided notion that they can achieve their ends through violence. As I have said in the past, my reading of history leads to the conclusion that there has never been a war that has resulted in peace. Every conflict has either led to another conflict in the long run, or resulted in the oppression of the loser in the short. An absence of war is not the same thing as the presence of peace.
A great Jewish leader, Rabbi Abraham Heschel, wrote books and taught theology but still found time to work hard for world peace in his lifetime. He used to preface his speeches with the candid remark that war was terribly exciting, and in many ways more appealing than peace. He was right. In the United States it was only with the disillusionment over Vietnam that the sale of toy pistols and tanks for children fell off. But sales soon went up again, and parents could buy all the machine guns, rocket missiles, and other war toys they wished, to help the kiddies celebrate the birth of the Prince of Peace! Something seems a little awry in American gift giving at this time of year.
Let me share an example of what the rabbi meant when saying, “war is terribly exciting.” This is taken from a report on the bombing of Nagasaki. Written by William L. Laurence, it appeared in The New York Times on September 9, 1945: “I watched the assembly of this man-made meteor... and was among the small group of scientists and Army and Navy representatives privileged to be present at the ritual of its loading in the Superfort...It is a thing of beauty to behold, this ‘gadget.’ Into its design went millions of man-hours of what is without doubt the most concentrated intellectual effort in history. Never before had so much brain power been focused on a single problem.”
His words treat the bomb as a sacred object, deserving of an almost ritual adoration. It is obscene and monstrous to lose one’s perspective and let our imaginations become so twisted in this fashion. The words of Mr. Laurence should be printed next to pictures of what the bomb did in Nagasaki. At least they should be accompanied by descriptions from the survivors of children with their skin hanging off or their eyes seared forever by the flame, or by the image of people so instantly incinerated that the only proof they ever lived on this planet is their shadow burned into the pavement. This came about after the philosopher William James made his famous statement about finding “a moral equivalent to war.” We have not found it yet. But it is past time to “focus all our brain power” on the single problem of making weapons. We should focus more and more on the challenge of seeking world peace and alternatives to violence. It is clear that the Church moves closer and closer to condemning all participation in warfare due to the nature of modern weaponry. There is no way to squeeze these weapons into any concept the “just war” theory. Many theologians would suggest that there never has been nor could there ever be a just war. Clearly there can no longer be one. We may have need for United Nations policing actions around the world, but major wars are now indefensible.
It seems to me that there are two essential elements to ending violence and giving flesh to the vision of the prophet. The first is to learn to trust in God. How does the prophet introduce his vision? “God himself shall judge between nations.” Will God’s judgment satisfy? Do we really believe and are we willing to trust God? We need no longer judge other nations ourselves. Not that we have done such a good job in the first place. But first we must change our perspective. I grew up during the Vietnam War. I was in the seminary and so I had an automatic deferment. If I had not been I probably would have been drafted and shortly thereafter court-martialed. Fortunately, I was exempt. One of my favorite slogans during the anti-war protests was “What if they threw a war and nobody came?” I do not know who thought it up, but it was a brilliant phrase. For it put war into the proper context of a political machination. Like a failed party when no one shows up, so it can be with war. But more than just opposing war, we must trust in the power of God who alone holds the future in his hands.
This is not just a concern on the international level. We must confront the violence within ourselves if we hope to change the world. That is not easy, because we are people who do not easily choose reconciliation and forgiveness when we have been wronged. We are taught to choose violence, to seek revenge and retribution. So we come to the second essential element for achieving the prophet’s vision: to recognize the presence of Christ among us now. If we, as followers of Jesus were to take our faith seriously, then every person we encounter is the presence of Christ. We need to seize the opportunities for recognizing Jesus among us. Toward that end, I wish to end with another story, this one a true event:
One day, a man driving down the highway saw a black woman standing beside her disabled car. Motorist after motorist sped by ignoring her. He decided to stop. The woman was not concerned about the car; she asked only for a ride to a nearby hospital.
A week later, the driver received a package containing a new television set with a thank you note from the woman, saying that, because of him, she had reached her husband’s bedside before he died. The note was signed, “Mrs. Nat King Cole.”
Beginning with the testimony in the Book of Genesis we affirm that all are created in God’s image, but we move even further to the belief that in every person, friend and foe, we meet the person of Christ. If we truly believe that, could any of us ever raise our hands in violence against another? And if we do not choose violence, surely we can find a way to peace.
We prepare best for the coming of the Lord, by recognizing his many comings among us now. And recognizing his presence in one another, maybe we will finally be able to beat our swords into plowshares.