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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
At Christmas even the most Protestant among us can be drawn to the contemplation of Mary. It seems right to recall her humble courage, her receiving and carrying and giving birth, and her joy as she sang of the saving work of God.
Although Mark seems to find it right that Jesus of Nazareth should have been among those who heeded John’s preaching, the three other evangelists appear concerned over the suggestion that Jesus was in some way a disciple of this other preacher.