Readings for First Sunday in Advent: IS 2: 1-5; PS 122: 1-9; ROM 13: 11-14; MT 24: 37-44
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Isn't it amazing how quickly the world changes? At times radical transformation happens so rapidly that we can miss the significance of events unfolding right before our eyes. One of those events occurred last week. Pope Francis astonished the world by publishing a revolutionary platform (Evangelii Gaudium) for his papacy, church and world. In doing so he is the first world leader among the global elite to call corporate globalization by its true name (systematized murder). As a result, 1.2 billion Catholics suddenly find themselves challenged about the free market, "trickle-down" theory, world hunger and poverty, the roots of terrorism, the unacceptability of war, the surveillance state and obsession of the rich with "defense" and "security." All of those familiar elements were thoroughly rejected by the pope.
If Catholic Christians (and other fellow-travelers) were to embrace the pope's message, history's door would suddenly fling itself open to truly radical change. It would mean for the first time since the 4 th century Christians would embrace "the way" of Jesus as opposed to that of Caesar, Constantine and their Euro-American successors. A world at peace would at last be possible.
Today's liturgy of the word, this first Sunday of Advent, invites us to envision such an unabashedly utopian world. Evangelii Gaudium makes that vision even more compelling and somehow brings it within reach.
Yes, a utopian world! It's the Judeo-Christian vision. It's the vision of Pope Francis.
Take the initial reading for this first Sunday of Advent. There the prophet Isaiah identifies Jerusalem as a Center of Peace. He does so in the most unlikely of circumstances -- at a time when the city and the entire Kingdom of Judah (as well as the Northern Kingdom of Israel) finds itself under imminent threat from the Assyrian Empire. The threat obscured the vision of Isaiah's contemporaries --but not the prophet's.
Despite the fog of war, Isaiah can still see Jerusalem (and the world) as he wants them to be -- as he thinks God wants them to be. Jerusalem suddenly becomes a harbinger of a place and time when war will completely disappear from the face of the earth. Then, Isaiah says, resources for battle will be reinvested in agriculture and forestry. Swords will be turned to plows and pruning hooks. No nation will rise against any other. Military training camps will be abolished. An era of light, the prophet promises, will have dawned with Jerusalem (City of Peace) as its center.
Urban renewal with a vengeance will result. That's what today's responsorial psalm (# 122) says. It had us chanting "Let us go rejoicing to the house of the Lord." The psalm goes on: Let us go to Jerusalem for it is not only a City of Peace, but of the prosperity that inevitably follows the abolition of war and the reinvestment of military resources. Jerusalem's infrastructure is completely rebuilt. It is as if (in the psalmist's words) peace had penetrated the city's very walls and the stones of its buildings. It's the result of people reinvesting resources in peace, internalizing peaceful aspirations, and adopting the mantra " May peace be within your walls, prosperity in your buildings . . . "Peace be within you!" Action follows thought.
In Chapter 13 of his Letter to the Romans, Paul agrees. He takes up Isaiah's theme of peacemaking as "walking in light." If you insist on arming yourselves, he says, let it be with light. This is a reference to the Enlightened Jesus. "Walking in Light," Paul says, means embodying the Christ's very presence. So Paul urges us to "Put on the Lord Jesus Christ" -- as if he were a garment -- so that all who see us find themselves looking at Princesses and Princes of Peace. Paul contrasts walking in light with working in darkness -- idolizing pleasure along with competition, jealousy, blind consumption, and drunken oblivion that saps awareness of who we really are. These are the very evils Pope Francis identified as underlying corporate globalization's systematized oppression.
Finally today's gospel excerpt from Matthew calls us away from business as usual -- the business of war. It challenges us to choose between destroying ourselves and working for the advent of God's Kingdom.
We stand on the cusp of a new era, Jesus insists -- a new beginning as radical as the new world facing Noah after the Great Flood. As then, today's order is about to be destroyed, Jesus warns. (And it was, when Rome invaded Israel and turned Jerusalem to a pile of rubble.)
It doesn't have to be that way, the Master insists. Instead of war's destruction, there could be universal peace. Jesus called it "The Kingdom of God" -- what the world would be like if the Parent of All were King -- instead of Caesar, the great patron of war and oppression. Like Isaiah's, Jesus' vision too is utopian. In God's Kingdom each treats the other as kin -- as sister, brother, friend, and lover. The Golden Rule applies. The earth's resources are shared, not horded or carelessly destroyed. There are no poor, because everything is shared in common, just as happened in the idealized community of Jesus' earliest followers (Acts 2:44, 4:32, 5:9).
That Kingdom (or its opposite -- it's up to us) will arrive sooner than we expect, Jesus promises, "like a thief in the night." This means most might not even know a new era has dawned till after the dreams that sleepwalkers cherish have disappeared. If they don't wake up, it may even seem that the somnambulants' very selves have been "taken" -- like the man in the field and the woman at the mill Jesus mentions. They simply vanish while their minds and hands are focused on work that then becomes irrelevant.
Like Jesus (and Pope Francis), Noah tried to warn such people about the karma they were creating for themselves. But they were asleep -- in denial really -- concerned merely with eating, drinking, starting families and laboring as though Noah's warnings were nonsense.
But then . . . la deluge!
Of course, most progressives hearing all of this today are about as believing as Noah's audience -- or Jesus' for that matter. We find it hard to believe that real positive change can happen to our world. The evil surrounding us seems so permanent; its forces so overwhelming. But that's only because we're asleep. "Wake up!" is the message of Isaiah, the psalmist, Paul and Jesus.