(c) John Clem
Director, Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach
Into our weary and exhausted world, the season of Advent suddenly appears, a time of waiting, but also of hope. The biblical prophet Isaiah calls out to us over the centuries and reminds us that we are not alone. Then, as now, “A people who walked in darkness, have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness, on them light has shined.” (Is 9:2)
For Christians, Advent is a time of great expectation, the coming of the Christ into history, a time of great joy at the birth of our Savior, Jesus.
The readings from Advent speak to the joy of this time of new beginnings, a time filled with the joy of salvation, the birth of Jesus Christ, the coming of God into history.
The world into which Jesus was born is not too terribly different from our own. Then, as now, the world was torn asunder by violence, deeply divided by injustice, creation itself was rocked by “wars and rumors of wars” and devastating earthquakes and natural disasters.
Today, violence occurs not only between nations, but within nations, often spurred by inter-religious and inter-ethnic conflicts, and within cities, as gun violence in our own country has made so clear.
In this week’s readings, the prophet Isaiah shares with us his dream, a dream of peace and Gospel nonviolence:
“In the days to come … they shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks, one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Is 2:1-5).
The readings invite us to be vigilant: “You know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep” (Rom 13:11). Looking at our world today, we see much darkness, a world torn apart by wars and violence.
Just one week ago, standing at “ground zero” in Nagasaki, Pope Francis reaffirmed his commitment to nonviolence and peace as the heart of the Christian gospel and called on nations to renounce nuclear weapons as “a crime against the dignity of human beings” and “against any possible future for our common home.”
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer, a Lutheran pastor who was executed by the Nazis in Germany, reminds us: “If we want to be part of these events, Advent and Christmas, we cannot just sit there like a theater audience and enjoy all the lovely pictures. Instead, we ourselves will be caught up in this action, this reversal of all things; we must become actors on this stage.”
In this Advent season, Jesus invites us to look out for “the signs of the time”? For Christians, the sign above all signs is what we anticipate in Advent and celebrate at Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ into our history, whose coming heralds the great reversal of all things, a new ordering of all things on this earth.
The readings from Advent speak of God’s great reversal, a time when “the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,” and “there shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain” (Is 11:6, 9). Would that we found such compassion and mercy at our nation’s borders!
Today, in countries throughout the world, “the stranger in our midst,” the widow and the orphan, are turned away or detained, as millions flee the violence of wars and the devastation of poverty and climate disasters in search of refuge. Precious human beings and children are trafficked and subject to the cruelest abuses.
Today, as in Jesus’ time, the divides between races and the gap separating rich from poor is “growing exponentially.” “Human beings are themselves considered consumer goods to be used and then discarded.” In the face of such division and oppression, Pope Francis invites us to respond with “generosity” and “solidarity” in order to “restore to the poor what belongs to them” and to “eliminate the structural causes of poverty.” [EG 188-89]
As more and more people are crossing borders to escape the violence of war, poverty and climate disasters, Jesus invites us to see his face in every hungry and thirsty refugee, in every sick or detained child, in every family separated or persecuted at the border; and to remember with Saint Paul to “Welcome one another, then, as Christ welcomed you” (Rom 15:7).
In the face of such terrible suffering, the season of Advent invites us to embrace our migrant sisters and brothers, resist calls to division and exclusion, and look with hope to that day when “Justice will flourish in God’s time, and fullness of peace forever.” Then “God shall rescue the poor when he cries out, and the afflicted when she has no one to help her. God shall have pity for the lowly and the poor; the lives of the poor God shall save." (Psalm 72)
Advent also reminds us of the suffering of creation, our common home. In recent years, we have all been witnesses so the ravaging impact of global warming and climate change. Entire communities have been ravaged by terrifying tsunamis and hurricanes, devastating floods and years of drought, coastland cities and entire island nations live under the threat of disappearing entirely as sea levels continue to rise.
Often, the magnitude and intensity of human suffering overwhelms us. What can we do in the face of such suffering? Pope Francis invites us to hear and respond to both “the cry of the earth” and “the cry of the poor,” turning away from our global dependence on fossil fuels and creating a sustainable future for the planet and for future generations.
In Jesus’ time, of course, people suffered the devastation of natural disasters. Today, however, “natural” disasters are even more destructive because of “human” causes, from global warming caused by carbon emissions to the destruction of the environment by mining companies and extractive industries that strip the earth, cut down the forests, poison the water, and create “climate refugees.”
In the face of such suffering, however, we are not without hope. But the time is short; only a matter of years before we reach a tipping point and greater disaster. Isaiah shares with us a vision of “the peaceable kingdom,” when “the desert and the parched land will exult; the steppe will rejoice and bloom. They will bloom with abundant flowers and rejoice with joyful song” (Is 35:1-2). It is in such times as these that God raises up prophets to call the nations of the earth to respond with justice.
Imagine what this day will be like for people devastated by climate change and environmental disasters, and for our children and grandchildren when they remember the threats of disaster! Then, Isaiah tells us, justice, peace, and the integrity of creation will flourish! “Then will the eyes of the blind be opened, the ears of the deaf be cleared; then will the lame leap like a stag, then the tongue of the mute will sing!” (Is 35:5-6)
But we must be vigilant, and we must act now! Advent invites us to have both the patience of “the farmer [who] waits for the precious fruit of the earth,” but also the urgency and impatience of “the prophets who spoke in the name of the Lord” (Jas 5:7, 10) and announced God’s kingdom.
Finally, when we consider the events of Advent and Christmas, Pope Francis invites us “to believe once again in the revolutionary nature of love and tenderness.” He reminds us that it was Mary “who praised God for ‘bringing down the mighty from their thrones’ and ‘sending the rich away empty’ (Lk 1:52-53),” a cautionary reminder to the leaders of great nations. But for the poor, and for the migrants and refugees, Mary is also “the one who brings a homely warmth to our pursuit of justice.” [EG 288]
The Advent readings speak to the joy of this time of new beginnings, a time filled with the joy of salvation, the birth of Jesus Christ, and the coming of God into our history: “Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and they shall name him Emmanuel, which means ‘God is with us.’” (Mt 1:18-24)
Our Advent waiting and hope culminate in the joy of Christmas, the birth of Jesus Christ into our weary world and war-torn, poverty-stricken, and climate disaster-prone history, the fruit of sinful human hearts and sinful human structures.
For Dietrich Bonhoeffer, “for those who are great and powerful in this world, there are two places where their courage fails them, which terrify them to the very depth of their souls, and which they dearly avoid. These are the manger and the cross of Jesus Christ.”
But for the poor, and those who seek justice on this earth, the hope of the season of Advent may be glimpsed in the promise of “a new heaven and a new earth” founded on that biblical shalom, where justice and peace kiss, and the entire creation is transformed.
In such a time, we make our own the hopes of the poor that God will “make all things new,” and we renew our promise to “do justice, love mercy, and walk humbly with our God” (Mi 6:8).
For Advent and Christmas invite us to remember in Bonhoeffer’s words: “When God wants to enter this world in the manger in Bethlehem, this is not an idyllic family occasion, but rather the beginning of a complete reversal, a new ordering of all things on this earth.”
Copyright © 2020 Columban Center for Advocacy and Outreach, Washington, D.C.