Ruth A. Meyers, an Episcopal priest, is associate professor of liturgies at Seabury-Western Theological Seminary in Evanston, Illinois.
This article appeared in The Christian Century, November 14, 2001, p. 15. Copyright by The Christian Century Foundation; used by permission. Current articles and subscription information can be found at www.christiancentury.org. This material was prepared for Religion Online by Ted and Winnie Brock.
Advent invites us to live in hope and not in despair. The violent death of Jesus on the cross was not the end, for in Jesus’ resurrection we are assured of new life. Violence will not have the last word.
“Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility.” The ancient Advent collect still echoes deep within my soul. When I was a child, our nightly family Advent ritual included singing “O come, O come Emmanuel,” lighting the Advent wreath and praying this collect. Night after night, as the evening shadows lengthened and the cold December darkness deepened around us, our family gathered around the dinner table to sing, to light candles, to pray, to eat.
Each time I hear this prayer or the passage from Romans upon which it is based, I am drawn back to those evenings. Flickering candles remind me of the light of Christ, the celebration of Christ’s birth just a few short weeks ahead. The lessons appointed for the first Sunday of Advent, however, point not to the nativity, but to the Second Coming. “Wake up! Be alert!” Matthew and Paul tell us. The day of the Lord is near, and though we cannot know the day or the hour, we must be ready.
Isaiah gives us a vivid image of that day. People are streaming to a holy mountain from every corner of the earth. They carry with them the weapons of war, and as they climb the mountain, they cast swords and spears into the furnace. A blacksmith stands by with a hammer, patiently pounding weapons into tools for cultivation. The din of the forge grows louder, hammer clangs on anvil as more and more people arrive weary of war, drawn by the light, ready for a new day of peace.
“Imagine,” John Lennon sings. In a world weary of war, it is difficult to imagine. Palestinians and Israelis take a few halting steps toward peace, only to have violence flare anew and hopes dashed once more. Hatred simmers between Protestants and Catholics in Northern Ireland. Combatants cling to their weapons, and do not trust one other enough to yield to peace. When terrorists turn planes into bombs, the United States and Britain respond by turning their weapons on a country they claim harbors the terrorists. How, indeed, are we to imagine a world of peace?
In the midst of the violence of this world, the beginning of Advent invites us to hope for a different world. As the days grow ever shorter, we light candles to remind us of the salvation given through Christ.
But it is not enough to light candles and carry on with our rituals. “Give us grace to cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light,” we pray. As followers of Christ, we are to arm ourselves not with swords and spears, but with Christ, the light of the world.
Last spring our seminary community gathered for a conversation about peacemaking. How do we make peace in our lives and our world? I offered my own experience as a parent. In my conflicts with my son, now a teenager, I have sometimes come face to face with the urge to do violence. Over the years, I have relied upon the grace of God (sometimes embodied in the listening ears of empathetic friends) to help me restrain myself and to transform my desire for violence into a tender embrace of my son. As I told my story that day, I was surprised by the nods of people around the room. Others shared similar stories, and people told me later that they related to my experience.
Learning to be a peacemaker at home is just one dimension of the transformation to which Christ calls us. At the seminary that day, we became so caught up in discussing our own families that our moderator had to gently remind us to look beyond our immediate experiences and consider the world around us.
In our world violence is never far away — it’s in our own households, our communities and certainly in the nations of the world. My efforts to be a peacemaker often seem futile. Who am I in the face of such powerful forces? Even if I join other peacemakers, how can we possibly make a difference?
Advent invites us to live in hope and not in despair, for our hope rests on a firm foundation: Jesus Christ. The violent death of Jesus on the cross was not the end, for in Jesus’ resurrection we are assured of new life. Violence will not have the last word. We look toward the holy mountain, where weapons of war are hammered into tools.
The vision given to us on this first Sunday of Advent is a vision for the end of time. “In the last day, when Christ shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal.” For now, we wait expectantly, protecting ourselves with the armor of light, clothing ourselves with Christ.
At celebrations of baptism, it is becoming common to present the newly baptized with a candle. “Receive the light of Christ,” we say. The newly baptized then becomes a part of the community of believers who walk in the light of Christ and seek paths of peace in a violent world. Be it a baptismal candle or an Advent candle, the flickering light reminds us of Christ, the light of the world. This Advent, may we receive grace anew, cast away the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.