The most prophetic thing that Thomas Merton ever did was to say to a drugstore clerk who asked him which brand of toothpaste he preferred, “I don’t care.” Intrigued by the clerk’s response, Merton wrote, “He almost dropped dead. I was supposed to feel strongly about Colgate or Pepsodent or Crest. . . . And they all have a secret ingredient.” He concluded that “the worst thing you can do now is not care about these things.”
My extended family once had so many males named Frederick that the women in the family assigned each of us a number so the tribe could distinguish between us at family reunions. I became Fred IV. A casual observer might have thought that we considered ourselves royalty, or perhaps a line of renegade popes.
Few know blindness so profoundly as prisoners who once could see the whole world but now find the universe shrunk to the size of a cell. Inmates hear only what jailers allow, most often some version of “We own you.” As for music, the rhythm of one’s own pulse must suffice, and that hardly leads to dancing. One can even forget how to walk.
Isaiah and the Baptizer conspire to give us animal dreams in this dark season of Advent. The earlier prophet’s vision warms our hearts. Who among us hasn’t yearned for a world in which lambs could hang out with wolves and adders behave as though Mr. Rogers had taught them how to play with children? A strange political critter appears in the dream as well, one that’s not the puppet of pollsters and the powerful, but a leader with the heart and Spirit of God.
Few things are more complicated than trying to erect a new monument in the heart of Washington, D.C., but on September 9, 1997, a gigantic crane cut through all of the red tape encircling Judiciary Square and lowered a four-ton sculpture to its permanent cement base. What made this particular installation remarkable was the biblical symbolism of the sculpture’s design. Titled “Guns into Plowshares,” this 16-foot-high steel plow blade consists of 3,000 handguns welded together to form the distinctive shape of the well-known farm implement. Artist Esther Augsburger and her son worked for two and a half years with the Metro Police Department. They molded handguns that had been surrendered by local residents.
When I was a small boy in Ireland my parents would take us to our grandfather’s farm near Castlecomer in County Kilkenny. On the farm there was a hired man whose name was John Brennan. John lived in a thatched cottage about half a mile away. In the evening after the cows were milked, he would sit on a large flat stone outside the stable door and smoke a stained clay pipe. Sometimes I would sit beside him and he would tell me stories.
People who introduce themselves as bearing a message from God do not commend themselves to us easily. If we do turn an ear to them out of curiosity, or perhaps out of an amused and sometimes horrified fascination, they tend to wear out their welcome quickly. We have learned only too well that such self-styled messengers of God can carry out deeds of unimaginable ferocity in the name of their particular vision of God.
My gratitude for Advent has deepened over the years. I welcome the shorter days, and love the way the angled light of late November and early December makes everything look different. It seems to transform the world into a more promising place. Details are softer, colors pastel.
Why are you and I offered this wonderful performance on this Advent Sunday? Because although it may be winter in the realm of nature, it is springtime in the realm of the spirit and of our Christian hearts. We are not far from the fields and caves of Bethlehem. But before we come to them, we need to know that every one of these songs was sung in spite of the times. Knowing this, it is salutary to look once again at the extraordinary joy that bubbles forth.
The realization that one has enemies, personal or professional, can make one adopt a guarded and self-limiting stance toward life. Yet in Psalm 25, where someone is wrestling with this kind of situation, we see the psalmist reaching out to the one he can trust as not treacherous, to whom he can relate, secure in the knowledge that in God he has a source of steadfast love.