We are being prepared to bring God into our hearts, lives and world. We are being prepared for the coming of the One who reveals God’s priorities which are different to those of the world’s rulers. Something powerful happened when God became flesh who in Jesus hit the streets, especially those of the poor. Jesus’ mission in bringing ‘good news to the poor’ and identifying with ‘the least of these’ was expressed in nonviolent living: turning the other cheek, practicing humility, going the extra mile, putting away their swords, loving one’s including one’s enemies in order to usher in ‘peace on earth, good will toward all’.
Paul advocates for a harmonious society in which people imitate Christ by being hospitable to one another – ‘live in harmony with one another…to glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ’ (Rom 15:5-6). Hospitality is essential for creating a community based on love and respect especially as we seem to live in a culture where those in charge contravene our faith by slandering those especially dear to God - the poor and marginalised. Paul is not looking to a vague future vision but to 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 lions, lambs, and calves playing together; leopard and goats, cows and bears, little babies and deadly snakes not threatening each other is the prophetic vision of the relationship between humans and nature. It is about harmony and mutual respect - not exploitation and destruction. Looking at this unlikely image of harmony, the reality is that there are many who live in fear: LGBTIQ Catholics in the church, indigenous people and people of other faiths. Living within a more dominant culture, they often feel pulled in different directions because they do not fit neatly into the boxes or categories that the dominant society has created.
John dreams of a new era and that means aligning ourselves with God’s realm or reign. It requires a change of heart, repentance and a new set of values. God needs us to be hands, hearts, and minds, to heal the world. Advent presents an impossible possibility: our partnership with God will create a new earth. Whilst invited to wait in Advent, it is so see how we can be catalysts for the changes God inspires us to see in the world. The waiting is to enable to become aware of whatever does not foster humanity in us and our sisters and brothers. When God enters our world something has to give!
Coming from the margins, John saw reality more clearly. He awakened people to God's presence – a presence that can shatter the silence and invade 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 should not be ‘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 or superior to 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 remember the many people for whom life is darkness – the Rohingya refugees, Uighurs in China, victims of all kinds of abuse from domestic to trafficking, and as the people in Israel celebrate the Festival of Lights, their Gazan neighbours have their lights shut out as they, 1.5 million people, live in the world’s biggest prison with power shortages, sewerage in the streets, and daily humiliation at 100’s of checkpoints. Not all who shared in the Thanksgiving lights in the USA failed to remember the genocidal destruction of the American Indians, the violence against African slaves, and more recent violent actions at Standing Rock, as the people tried to protect their ancestral lands. In October, Pope Francis tried to shine a light on the many forms of violence endured by the peoples of the Amazon Basin. In January, for many Australia Day does not make any connection with the killings, dispossession and losses suffered by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples.
Isaiah’s images of predators living in harmony with their prey, is not just about a lion and lamb together, but about something more difficult to imagine - human beings living justly and peacefully together. Isaiah directly links faith with justice for the poor, oppressed and marginalised who are typically ignored. While Isaiah uses images of different animals living in harmony to speak about the idealised hope for world; human examples better serve to exemplify this type of revolutionary change. We saw it in Nelson Mandela when 30 years of imprisonment did not deprive him of his humanity but was able to sincerely forgive the gaolers and better the lives of other prisoners. We saw it when about 1000 veterans, with church people, stood in solidarity with the Indians at Standing Rock facing the powerful enemy - the US Government.
The overwhelming conclusion from Isaiah is that we need to build a non-predatory world. The basic call is against harming, hurting or destroying the other people, animals and creation. Could we not envision a world where people could maintain their differences without killing, or vilifying, or denigrating each other or poisoning children with the bitter taste of racism or homophobia? What if the reign of God looks like a Pope washing the feet of a female Muslim prisoner, or a gay man and a Muslim heterosexual woman breaking bread together? Not impossible! If a Palestinian would be the guest of the Israeli? Not impossible! If the Muslim and the Christian in Indonesia share food together? Not impossible! We cannot assume that it is impossible to bring about this world. It’s a choice. It does take effort, creativity and imagination. But, it begins here, in our families, jobs, politics, and economics with generosity and truthfulness.
John’s presence in our liturgy is a wake-up call. Like it or not, we can't ignore his message. We have a choice: we confess that we are part of the problem and take the plunge to work for a really different future, or we hang on in the style of the Sadducees or Pharisees. If we ignore John, then we may not recognise where Christ is working today. Let us remember to look for Christ in all people and treat one another with dignity and respect, and hold our leaders to high standards by urging them to promote harmony, not sow discord. Expecting leaders to create just societies should be a goal for our current reality.
Compiled by Claude Mostowik msc,
Director of Missionaries of the Sacred Heart Justice and Peace Centre, Enmore, NSW
President, Pax Christi Australia
Convenor, Pax Christi Australia (NSW)