Second of Advent Year A
We are being prepared to bring God into our hearts, lives, and world. Isaiah wants to inspire dreams where we envision universal peace when all creatures will have evolved beyond aggression because we enjoy and shared everything necessary for genuine thriving. Through ecological imagery, Isaiah shows us what peace in God’s reign will look like: the gentle cohabitation of predator and prey – wolves and lambs, the lion shall eat straw like an ox. This vision of peace is a vision for all Creation—human and non-human. We are a part of this vision.
Biblical scholars remind us that in God’s ordering of creation, humans exist within the ecosystem. Isaiah speaks of the seemingly impossible - enemies becoming companions, children are safe from harm, wise national leadership, and a world without war. It has never occurred. But Isaiah’s dream still judges world history and serves as a vision for our endeavours. We have to face a choice: either we admit to being part of the problem and work for a really different future, or we hang on in the style of the Sadducees or Pharisees. The danger of ignoring John is that we are unlikely to recognize where Christ is working today. We cannot be passive. Our passivity, our failure to follow the earth-transforming vision offered will exacerbate the evils we deplore, e.g., the threats to world peace by nuclear weapons, famines across Africa, and the violence against the Earth. Though Isaiah’s vision seems unrealistic, we need to continue to strive for the peace of God’s reign where we strive to create communities that nurture human betterment and make peace with the non-human world; and where poverty, injustice, racism, sexism, xenophobia, and global climate change are a thing of the past. All the readings challenge us to face some difficult realities in our lives and in our world. Though they may seem unrealistic let’s consider the unrealistic views we encourage: belief in trickle down wealth to the poor; that fighting achieves peace; that crime will end when we lock more people up in prison; that racism ends when we ignore it. So often try to hide, destroy or ignore the painful and difficult. we are told to hide, destroy, or ignore what is hard or painful, and trust that good things will be ours. John is telling us to go to the hard place to do the work of healing and reconciliation. In our commitment to nonviolence, e recognize different forms of violence and our participation in it whether direct, physical violence, systemic and structural violence, the violence of attack and exploitation or that of exclusion and indifference. Nonviolence requires recognising violence and its roots in order to resist and transform it. Clearly, peace is rare and fragile. For us to live, entire forests are cleared for livestock that will also have a gruesome end. We blow up mountains to find coal and other minerals. We degrade waterways with industrial poisons which poison people and species alike. Whilst some say there are no alternatives – that this way of death is the only way, Christ offers us another way—the ways of peace, justice, life. God is always doing a new thing in becoming a part of our world despite its death dealing ways to show us the way to life.
Something powerful hit the streets when God became flesh in Jesus. Isaiah’s vision took flesh. Jesus enfleshed Isaiah’s vision by bringing ‘good news to the poor’; identifying with ‘the least of these’; espousing nonviolent living; practicing humility; going the extra mile: putting away swords and loving one’s enemies. Paul advocates a harmonious society where people imitate Christ by hospitality – essential for creating a community based on love and respect as opposed to a culture where those in power slander those especially dear to God - the poor and marginalised. For Paul this is not about a vague future but our life together now. His words are pertinent today - welcome Muslims as brothers and sisters; LGBTIQ people; people from different ethnic backgrounds.
For Isaiah, treating people who are poor justly is the key to peace. It means putting their needs over the rich and powerful. The image of animals playing together; and little children not being threatened is the prophetic vision of the relationship between humans and nature. It is about harmony and mutual respect - not exploitation and destruction.
Despite this unlikely image of harmony, the reality is that many people live in fear: LGBTIQ Catholics in the church, and who this week we again attacked in a bar; Indigenous people experiencing racism by police and other institutions; women in domestic violence situations. Advent presents an impossible possibility: our partnership with God will create a new earth.
Coming from the margins, John saw reality more clearly. He awakened people to God's presence – a presence that can shatter the silence and penetrate our comfortable lives. Will we allow John to confront our comfort by examining the role of injustice, inequality, prejudice, ignorance, poverty, hunger, illiteracy, powerlessness, and hopelessness in our world? Will we shout out that these are not ‘normal’? Will we say that vilification of minority groups is not the normal? Will we allow him to confront our indifference? John’s word convicted his listeners and convicts us today. For transformation to take place, we must put off injustice, idolatry of consumerism and spiritual smugness to experience God’s realm in the now. John says, we must choose life - economically, politically, relationally, and congregationally.
For John, bloodlines were not enough when the people are let down by their leaders. No group of people is above another. All are ‘Children of God’. Anyone can bring about the Reign. John could be speaking to our political and ecclesiastical leaders whose words and actions were toxic and poisonous when they acted contrary to the purposes of God’s Reign of peace and justice or right relationship. Religion cannot be content to work with a corrupt system. John lambasts an establishment where relationships with the brutal Roman occupiers was normalised. We have seen how often than not the church has been silent when war is glorified or still promotes a ‘Just War’ theory. Or silent at the continuing condition of Aboriginal and Torres Islander people. Or silent and lacking in transparency at the systematic ill-treatment of asylum seekers. The imminent Birth is about commitment to be peacemakers, people of justice, people willing to give themselves for others.
If God’s promises do not touch us, they are empty and silly gestures. The Reign of God we long for and work for must usher in a world where the weak and vulnerable are cared for; where justice prevails; and where people live in harmony irrespective of their difference. This is summed up by ‘Shalom’ which includes well-being, mercy, peace, harmony, goodness, and justice. This what Pope Francis proclaims constantly. Like John the Baptist, he criticises the status quo with an alternative vision of creation: away from domination and rapacious empires to inclusion and peace. We cannot be secure as we attack our enemies. We cannot find peace as we exclude those who challenge or disagree with us. We cannot find joy by getting more and stuff. We cannot find love by turning inward and seeking only our personal needs.
To know shalom, we need to change how we do things. We need to allow ourselves to embrace risky acts like listening, dialogue, hospitality, service, justice and compassion. It is in creating shalom for others that shalom finds us, and God’s reign is truly within us. In embracing a shalom way of being we reflect God’s face, compassion and mercy, and we begin to bring God’s shalom into our world as a lived reality. Isaiah’s vision of beauty and hope where there is a harmony based on justice and the mutual recognition, we see that in Pope Francis’ overall vision in Laudato si’ as he outlines a ‘just peace’ that flows from an integral ecology - the interconnectedness with people, God and creation. There can be no justice and no peace when people claim to be 'more equal' than others. In this new world order, the old marginalising arrangements are over. The establishment figures in the gospel do not understand that God’s coming in Christ means the end of privilege and priority. Pope Francis, like John, has told the leaders that their pedigrees of status, conviction, and influence are of no use. These belong to a dying age.
So as we light Advent candle, let us remember the people for whom life is darkness – the Iranian women; people opposing the Burmese military; Rohingya; Uighurs; victims of all kinds of abuse; and as people in Israel celebrate the Festival of Lights, their Gazan neighbours have their lights shut out: 1.5 million people living in the world’s biggest prison with power shortages, sewerage in the streets, and daily humiliation at 100’s of checkpoints. Few sharing Thanksgiving in the USA remember the genocidal destruction of the American Indians, violence against and enslavement of African people, and present-day attempts of Indigenous people to protect their ancestral lands. These have parallels in this country with the Aboriginal Wars to protect country, enslavement of people from the Pacific, and disrespect for Aboriginal sacred sites. In our Australia Day commemorations, many fail to make a connection with the killings, dispossession and losses suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. In recent years, Pope Francis has tried to shine a light on the many forms of violence endured by the peoples of the Amazon Basin.
Isaiah’s images of predators living in harmony with their prey, is something more difficult to imagine - human beings living justly and peacefully together. He links faith with justice for the poor, oppressed and marginalised. We need to build a non-predatory world. The call is against harming, hurting or destroying the other people, animals and creation. It means envisioning a world where differences can be maintained with violence, vilification and denigration. It is not impossible. It is a choice. It requires effort, creativity and imagination. It begins in our homes, communities, workplaces with generosity and truthfulness.
John’s word convicted his listeners and convicts us today. We must choose life, John says, economically, politically, relationally, and congregationally. We are the Advent change we seek; apart from us, there will be no peaceable realm. It one thing to say that we need to change. It is another to be reminded that we can change, that life can be different.
We could ask how we participate in structures that perpetuate violence? Economic exploitation, racism and other forms of discrimination, the destruction of the environment and contribution to climate change are all forms of violence. When we vote for politicians who are prepared to spend trillions of dollars on weapons rather than fund human needs, a system we support with our taxes, it raises the question of our complicity in violence. Like John, we are challenged to announce the coming of a world not yet born, critique our own and our community’s hypocrisy, and recognize that Christ’s presence demands a radical reorientation of values so that we might recognize the realm of God already emerging in our midst.