The joyful season of Advent, traditionally for Christians a time of waiting, longing and hope, begins this year between Black Friday (and Saturday) and Cyber Monday, the greatest shopping days of the year. If there is much joy, waiting, longing, and hope in evidence, it seems to be mainly on-line and in malls. With Thanksgiving Day increasingly given over to shopping for early sales, it’s likely that Christmas Day itself will be handed over to last-minute buying sprees. If there’s any truth to the claim that religion is on the decline in the United States, as it has been for some time in Europe, all this should come as no surprise. It has been coming for some time. It’s indelibly here. Consumerism is all the rage. Frequently, to some appearances. Even with guns.
But perhaps the commercial trumpeting of the news channels and social media has over-hyped the situation. Amid the din of the malls and shopping districts, there can still be heard the tinkling of bells, as the Salvation Army collects loose change for the poor, and the occasional Nativity Scene can be glimpsed in the small grassy area in front of churches. Even recorded Christmas carols float over the air, including those that haven’t been perverted into advertisements for new cars, giant TV monitors, computer games, and the latest generation of vacuum cleaners.
Advent, however, seems to be in serious decline. The Christmas season already arrived last week with huge parades on the main streets of America, heralded by Mickey and Minnie Mouse, Olaf, Big Bird, Frosty the Snowman, Ronald McDonald, and the jolly old elf himself. Small wonder that the liturgies of this time of year seem so quaint and out-of-step. All the more reason, perhaps, to consider the great themes they bear of waiting, watching, and preparing for the day of the Lord. All of them.
Advent calls us to ponder the meaning not only of Jesus’ birth two thousand years ago, but of his coming, today especially. Not in terms of increased consumption, but of greater compassion, peace, and justice, the hidden coming cited by St. Cyril, the Patriarch of Jerusalem back in the fourth century, like the dew appearing on the morning fleece. But we also anticipate the final coming of the Son of Man, the Just Judge.
This year, we first begin to ponder Jesus’ historical appearance among us, his daily hidden appearance, and his future coming in glory by meditating on the Book of
Isaiah, a collection of messianic prophecies composed between the middle of eighth century before the Common Era 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 – long ago earned it the accolade “the Fifth Gospel.” Isaiah is cited in Christian scripture more than any other book in the Bible except 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, with images of the war-blade being hammered into the cutting edge, the “share” or “shear” of an agricultural tool – a symbol of peace. But there is a powerful but perhaps forgotten representation of this passage in the garden of the United Nations in New York, a gift of the Soviet government on the 4th of December exactly sixty years ago. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl…. Hopefully it will come to be recognized again as the symbol of the reconciliation and cooperation the world still so desperately longs for.
Isaiah ends this passage simply, “O house of Jacob, come, Let us walk in the Light of the Lord.” Light is the principle advent symbol in the readings this year: preparing for God’s rule by living according to the divine mandate — 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 it — both the thief who enters and robs, and the thief of souls.
These lead 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, “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. The long dark night of sin has passed. Our temptation is to be lulled back into sleep by the lure of a world that fails to 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, just watching the parade pass by.
Our advent journey invites us to learn 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 and desperation. In this life, we will not see Christ unless we see them first. In Isaiah’s language,
“cease to do evil, learn to do good; seek justice, rescue the oppressed, defend the orphan, plead for the widow. …though your sins are like scarlet, they shall be like snow; though they are red like crimson, they shall become like wool” [Isaiah 1:16-18].