Let the Scriptures Speak
Swords Into Plowshares
They shall beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks. (Isaiah 2:4)
If we were still using the dating system made popular by Hippolytus of Rome, we would be writing the year 7498 AM (Anno Mundi) as the date for our correspondence. As it happens, we still use the system devised by the sixth-century monk Dionysius Exiguus (“Tiny Dennis”), who advised that it would be more apt for Christian Europe to place the incarnation at the center of history and to date events prior to Christ by counting backward, leaving the normal forward count for the events after that first Advent. It took the promotion of another monk, Venerable Bede, a century and a half later, to popularize that dating system. And we have been living with the BC/AD (or, frequently today, BCE/CE) system ever since.
Accordingly, this First Sunday of Advent begins another Church Year in the third millennium CE. The start of this millennium simply served to remind us what the season of Advent has always been about in the eyes of faith: the year 2000 was simply a special jubilee year, doing what jubilee years have always done. It marked a special anniversary of the incarnation, celebrating the new beginning signaled by the First Advent of Christ, and occasioning repentance and renewed commitment to the good work that God has begun among us in Jesus.
Advent has always been a miniature of such anniversary jubilees. During this time, we focus our prayer and our liturgy on how we, and the rest of the world, continue to hunger for the dream that the incarnation began to realize two millennia ago. The language for expressing the hope—that the first Advent started to implement—was supplied in great part by the authors of the scroll of Isaiah.
This Sunday's First Reading gives us one of the most powerful articulations of that hope. If you visit the Old City of Jerusalem and stand on the Temple Mount and look around, the imagery of this reading takes on the dramatic edge it was meant to have. You find yourself standing on the hill the Bible calls Zion. It is a conspicuous shoulder of earth, to be sure, but it is noticeably lower than the mountains and hills surrounding it.
So when you read, “In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills,” you know that you are reading an apocalyptic vision. That is, you are reading a description of an event that is not of human making. It is a work of “earth-shaking” proportions brought about by divine intervention. Further, this vision of the end-times pictures all nations acknowledging Yahweh as the one God and king of all. They are streaming to Zion to learn Torah as a means of living in international peace. People will be moved to turn instruments of war, like swords and spears, into implements of peace, like agricultural tools such as plowshares and pruning hooks. (It is poignant to read that vision now, when rival political claimants to present-day Zion are threatening violence to make Jerusalem a place of shalom.)
That Jesus and the early Christians took this vision seriously is clear from the New Testament. Jesus called his followers “the light of the world.” He compared them to a city on a hill whose lights are visible for miles around. He blessed the makers of peace and challenged his disciples to find nonviolent ways of responding to violence. He even went so far as to advocate loving one's enemies and praying for one's persecutors. If this sounds like raising Zion above the surrounding landscape (moving mountains), that is as it should be. Such peacemaking is, finally, not something people do on their own. It is something that God does with and through them.
Advent comes to remind us that what the human heart most deeply desires, God began to fulfill in the first Advent—the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus of Nazareth. And what God has begun in Christ Jesus, God will complete—if those touched by this good news allow themselves to be used for such apocalyptic (read “humanly unrealistic but divinely possible”) peacemaking.
Dennis Hamm, SJ
Fr. Hamm is emeritus professor of the New Testament at Creighton University in Omaha. He has published articles in The Catholic Biblical Quarterly, The Journal Of Biblical Literature, Biblica, The Journal for the Study of the New Testament, America, Church; and a number of encyclopedia entries, as well as the book, The Beatitudes in Context (Glazier, 1989), and three other books.
**From Saint Louis University