What may be taken as good news (if not exactly the gospel) is that, according to the National Retail Federation sales are expected to be up 3.6% from last year in one of the best Christmas shopping periods in recent years. We may presume then that all must be well. And there are only 387 shopping days before next Christmas. With that and the Christmas parades and the biggest shopping days of the year behind us, I suppose that we are getting used to what we now call the “holiday season.” Unless you’re already over it. The first decorations went on shelves at the local Costco shortly before Halloween this year.
But shopping is not why Christians gather on this day amid the violet hues of Advent, with its great themes of waiting, watching, and preparing for the day of the Lord. The actual Christmas season won’t begin for another three weeks. Much of the ancient sense of expectation and longing has of course been co-opted by the forces of economic exploitation. One of the great ironies of history is that the birth of a figure who was so poor he had neither a proper place to be born or buried and for most of his short adult life did not even have a place to lay his head, would be honored by the greatest commercial enterprise of all time.
But if we stop to think about it, the Christian celebration of Advent recalls us to the meaning not only of Christ’s birth two thousand years ago, but of his advent, his coming, today especially. Not in terms of increased consumption, but of greater compassion, peace, and justice.
“Advent” forms the first part of the word “adventure.” That’s something to ponder, too. This year, we begin to ponder Christ’s adventure among us by meditating on the Book of Isaiah, which is a collection of messianic prophecies composed between the middle of eighth century before Christ and the Babylonian captivity of the Hebrew people over a hundred years later. The great themes we find in Isaiah — the demand for justice, peace, and reliance on God — have made it one of the favorite books of the Bible. Christians from the earliest times have looked on it as a Fifth Gospel. It is cited in Christian scripture more than any other book with the exception of the Psalms.
Today’s reading centers on one of the most famous and characteristic statements in Hebrew scripture:
“God shall judge between the nations, and shall decide for many peoples; and they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more” [2:4].
We are almost too familiar with the theme of Swords and Plowshares, which also appears in the writings of the much later prophets Joel and Micah, but in a surprisingly different way. Writing three hundred years after Isaiah, Joel advises:
Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, “I am a warrior.” Hasten and come, all you nations round about, gather yourselves there. Bring down your warriors, O LORD. Let the nations stir themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about. [Joel 3:9-12]
Writing about the same time as Isaiah, Micah is closer to him in tone and spirit, foreseeing a time of peace and good will among the nations of the world:
“they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more; but everyone shall sit under their vine and fig tree, and none shall make them afraid; for the mouth of the LORD of hosts has spoken. In that day, says the LORD, I will assemble the lame and gather those who have been driven away, and those whom I have afflicted; and the lame I will make the remnant; and those who were cast off, a strong nation; and the LORD will reign over them in Mount Zion from this time forth and for evermore” [4:3b-4, 6 – 7]
Joel is concerned with justice and judgment, Micah with the repatriation of the poor and the oppressed. Isaiah ends the passage more simply, “O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the Light of the Lord.” Light is the advent theme we focus on this year: specifically preparing for God’s rule by living justly and in love. But we will also find in these readings and those in weeks to come an echo of military preparedness, references to armor and weapons, rumors of the violence of thieves who come in the night when we least expect — both the thief who enters and robs, and the thief of souls.
This leads to the second great theme of the advent season and today’s liturgy of the Word, the metaphor of sleeping. Or, rather, of waking up. Paul writes to us, “Wake from sleep: cast off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light” [Rom 13: 11-14]. All three themes in a nutshell, so to speak.
Sleeping is a major symbol of the winter season. That is, if the weather gets cold enough. Bears, raccoons, hedgehogs, and all sorts of animals hibernate…. Even people sleep more than they do in the summer. The rhythm is regulated by alterations of darkness and light. So, too, in the liturgy: the days are growing shorter, darkness is increasing. But, we are warned, the light will break on us suddenly. The long night of sin has already passed. Our temptation is to be lulled back into sleep by the lure of a world that can no longer recognize the presence of God.
So Paul pleads with us, “Make no provision for the desires of the flesh” — be careful what you set your heart on, what you long for. Because you might just get it. And Jesus warns us, “Stay awake: You cannot know the day your Lord is coming. Keep a watchful eye” [Matt 24: 37-44]. For the Son of Man is coming at the time you least expect, like a thief in the night, and he is the thief of souls and hearts. So be ready for him, be alert. Pay attention! There is no time now when Jesus is not present, but the fullness of that presence, the manifestation of Christ in glory, is yet to be. So it’s still possible to be looking the other way.
Now, our adventure means learning again how to wait and watch, not passively but actively, filling our time with expectation, anticipating the one who steals into our midst in the guise of the poor, the oppressed, the suffering, the outcast. We are awake, we are alert, and we are attentive when we see them, actually see them, when we no longer look away from them, through them, or around their squalor. In this life, we will not see Christ unless we see them first. To see them IS to see Christ.