“They shall beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again …. Let us instead walk in the light of the Lord.” Isaiah 2: 4-5
“The Joy of the Gospel”
This is the title Pope Francis gave to his first Apostolic Exhortation. In this summation of his first statement of his priorities as a new pope, Francis wrote that there are “two great issues which strike me as fundamental at this time in history …. These issues are first, the exclusion of the poor in society, and second, peace and social dialogue.”
As one writer pointed out, somewhat like Martin Luther King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech, Pope Francis begins his manifesto by describing a dream that he has.
The dream is that of a church driven by a missionary impulse. And the mission he dreams about is reminiscent of the powerful imagery described so beautifully in the first reading above from the prophet Isaiah written thousands of years ago – a dream in which Isaiah foresees a people who make the decision to “beat their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks;” a dream in which “one nation shall not raise the sword against another; nor shall they train for war again.”
Pope Francis goes on to clearly enunciate what he sees as one of the greatest evils of our time:
“Today,” he writes, “everything comes under the laws of competition and the survival of the fittest, where the powerful feed upon the powerless. As a consequence, masses of people find themselves excluded and marginalized: without work, without possibilities, without any means of escape.”
All of this, and so much more, was written by Pope Francis just few days before beginning the season of Advent, a word meaning “arrival.” And that’s precisely what this season of the church year is dedicated to helping each of us to do:
Prepare our hearts for the “arrival” of the Christ child at Christmas.
Advent is the time of the year when we repeat words like “waiting,” and “anticipation,” and “hope.” It’s the time of the year when we light candles as a means of remembering that we are “called out of darkness into the light.” It’s the time of the year when we sing songs that help wake us up, pray prayers that call us to be vigilant, read scripture passages that invite us to get ready, become prepared.
It’s an “on-call” time of the year when we are invited to become alert to the need for an interior review, and the need for actively reassessing our priorities.
Perhaps most importantly, it’s a time set aside by the Church to look deeply at where it is that we will truly find the Christ child in our lives.
Will it be only a story about a manger in Bethlehem thousands of years ago? Or will it be a call, an invitation, a summons to look deeply inside our own hearts to see if there is a manger there waiting to be filled with the Prince of Peace, the God of endless mercy, the Lord who simply asks us to “follow me”?
Pope Francis seems adamant that the most opportune place to find the Lord of the Universe is not somewhere far off above the sky, but in the same humble places Jesus repeatedly told us we would find him:
In the poor, the weak, the vulnerable, the hungry, the handicapped, the mentally ill, the elderly, the homeless, the imprisoned.
Or, to put it even more simply, Pope Francis uses the words “in the powerless” and in the “inequality that spawns violence” to describe the place where our God hides.
A beloved spiritual writer, Henri Nouwen, asks a similar question:
“How can we come to know God when our focus is elsewhere, on success, influence, and power? I increasingly believe that our faithfulness will depend on our willingness to go where there is brokenness, loneliness, and human need. If the church has a future it is a future with the poor in whatever form.”
Sounds like he and the Pope and the Gospel of Matthew and Jesus himself are all singing out of the same hymnal, as we say.
But it isn’t just them.
It’s so many people who immediately responded to the travail of the immigrants, to the horror of gun violence multiplying around us, to the despair of what Pope Francis reminds us is the increasing multitude of “bruised, hurting , hungry and dirty people who are forced to live out on the streets.”
This is what Advent is ultimately all about: remembering.
Remembering that mercy and compassion are the ultimate sings that we have become the face of God to others.
Remembering that we are the light that is called to dispel the darkness that often surrounds so many people.
Remembering that we are to become the light that dispels darkness around us.
That’s what Advent is ultimately all about.
The “gospel of joy” that Pope Francis spoke of in his first major publication is beckoning each one of us to join in and remember all of this together, so that then we can be sent forth to bring that same “gospel of joy” to the whole world.
Now is the time.
Ted Wolgamot, Psy.D.