Beating Swords into Ploughshares
“It’s not dark yet, but it’s getting there” are words from a song by Bob Dylan that capture the beginning of Advent. As we enter into longer, dark nights in the northern hemisphere, Advent has us light a candle, then two, then three and four. Like many of you, I do this daily at home with an Advent wreath. It is a ritual that helps to hold the darkness at bay. As we see the trees silhouetted against the deep blue sky, everything seems sparse and barren, but Advent gives us evergreens and colors to fill the bleakness. It nourishes hope. It turns a solitary dark night into what Louis Armstrong called a “dark sacred night.” Dan Schutte calls it “Holy Darkness” and, like St. John of the Cross, makes it a metaphor for the Christian spiritual life. He sings, “In your deepest hour of darkness/ I will give you wealth untold./ When the silence stills your spirit,/ will my riches fill your soul./ As the watchman waits for morning,/ and the bride awaits her groom,/ so we wait to hear your footsteps/ as we rest beneath your moon.”
We begin Advent with a vision of the Reign of God from Isaiah: “In days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established as the highest mountain and raised above the hills. All nations shall stream toward it… He shall judge between the nations, and impose terms on many peoples. They shall beat their swords into ploughshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another. Nor shall they train for war again.” Don’t you long for that day? Isn’t it the deep desire of your heart, to have a world at peace and justly ordered by none other than God?
The vision of Isaiah is worthless to us if it functions merely as a dream. Even if we hold it to be true, but distant, it is of no use to us. The prophet’s words are not meant to foretell the future like a soothsayer; they are the words by which God speaks to us in the present calling us to action. When Jesus warns us to “stay awake!” he forbids us to think this vision of the kingdom is just a dream. It requires us to “be prepared, for at an hour you do not expect, the Son of Man will come.” St. Paul echoes the same sentiment in his Letter to the Romans: “Brothers and sisters: you know the time; it is the hour now for you to awake from sleep. For our salvation is nearer now than when we first believed; the night is advanced, the day is at hand.”
How can we be ready? What does the vision from the first reading have to do with the imperative given by Christ in the Gospel? One suggestion is to focus on the image of “beat[ing]… swords into ploughshares.” If we are to be ready for the judgment and for the Reign of God, we must live in that Kingdom already. We shouldn’t think of “train[ing] for war [no more]” as a vision of the future only, but as guidance for how to live in the Reign of God now. This is not to say that we must all reject our military and our just need for defense—that would be to foolishly act as if the fullness of the Kingdom were already here. Advent reminds us that we live in the darkness. As we await the Light of the World to arrive in His glory and to bring about the Just Order that we desperately seek, we nonetheless light a candle. “It is better to light one candle than to curse the darkness,” the Christophers remind us.
What candle can you and I light this week? What spear have we been holding onto that would serve others better if we turned it into a pruning hook? Is it a grudge that we have been unwilling to let go? Is it my ego that I am so afraid to make vulnerable? What is it about me that still brings hurt to others and prevents real peace from developing? Am I drinking too much? Am I being judgmental? Am I blaming the victim for their own abuse or mistreatment? Am I treating my boss or workers unfairly? Am I spending too much time and money on myself when others are desperately in need of the basics, including my attention? Can we beat the sword of our limited time into the ploughshares of visiting a lonely relative, friend, or stranger; or spending more time with our children?
I’ll be working on this. I’m sure you will too.
“Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light.”