The Second Sunday of Advent
IS 11:1-10; PS 72:1-2, 7-8, 12-13, 17; ROM 15:4-9; MT 3:1-12.
What is the relationship between the "peaceable kingdom" imaged in today's readings and our current urgent call to re-establish the ecological harmony that human actions have so profoundly damaged in recent years? There is a connection - but not a literal one. For example, take the line that says "the lion shall eat hay like the ox." As anyone who has ever had a cat around the house knows, felines may nibble a little grass here and there, but their digestive systems are made to thrive on meat. Cats are predators, built to hunt and kill for a living. And predators are an essential part of every well-balanced ecosystem. When there are no large wolves and cats who prey on deer, the result is too many deer eating up too many plants, thus destroying many species and eventually starving the deer as well. The truly harmonious ecosystem is not one without any death or killing, but one in which a balance is struck that allows all the species to thrive without overpopulating in a way that destroys their own habitat.
Isaiah's peaceable kingdom, then, is not a literal image of ecological paradise. Rather, it employs the imagery of the natural world to call us to look at reality from a radically different perspective. Placed in the context of Advent, the imagery of the text points to Christ as one who blossoms forth from the Earth and brings it to its fulfillment of complete communion and justice. Christians interpret the imagery as presenting Christ as the child of the Earth and its processes, yet also the revealer of a consummation that goes far beyond what the Earth alone can produce. Its invitation is to turn our vision around so we see everything in the world - even all its inherent pain, loss, and death - as arising from and headed toward consummation in Christ.
Maximus the Confessor, a seventh century monk from Constantinopolis, proposed just such a vision of the cosmos. He taught that Christ is the original, unifying source and pattern of everything that exists, but that a series of jarring divisions have been introduced into the cosmos. The human vocation, in his view, is to allow all those divisions to be healed in ourselves, so that the cosmos can return to the perfect pattern of Christ-likeness.
One of the divisions that Maximus believed we are called to heal is that between "the inhabited world" and "paradise." While he may have been operating on the assumption that the Garden of Eden was a geographical place existing somewhere on Earth, it is more helpful for us to look at paradise as the way things would be on Earth if humans never disobeyed or hid from God. Our call is to rediscover that way of being, right here in the midst of our non-paradisal world. Thus will "the inhabited world" and "paradise" be rejoined.
Humans are natural creatures who were created to be filled with the same spirit of wisdom, understanding, and justice that Christ bears. But instead we have become the despoilers of creation and predators of our own kind. A line making the rounds lately says, "Want to see the most dangerous creature on Earth? Look in the mirror." Lions were not created to eat hay, so it would be foolish to believe that one day they will do so. Humans, however, were created to be loving, just, and wise. The transformation of despoiling, predatory humans into divine instruments of harmony is possible, because that is the nature God intended for us.
Yet for that transformation to happen, Christ had to be born of the Earth, just as we are. Perhaps we can imagine his complete entrance into our earthly world as something like pressing the reset button; the long-lost original configuration of harmony, peace, and justice is made available again. But in this case, unlike in the machine analogy, it does not automatically take over. We must cooperate with the Christ-pattern with all the resources of our human nature, including our will, our intelligence, and our imagination. We must, as Paul tells us in today's reading from Romans, "think in harmony with one another, in keeping with Christ Jesus, that with one accord you may with one voice Glorify the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ."
What does all this have to do, finally, with our ecological crisis? In the past the Earth's ecological balance worked itself out by impersonal processes, but today key aspects of it (for example, the carbon cycle and climate) are literally in human hands. If humanity does not quickly learn how to be truly wise and judicious in our care for the earthly garden, disorder and disaster will only continue to increase. Isaiah's "peaceable kingdom" is not a literal image of what the Earth will be like when balance is regained, but it offers something even more crucial to the Earth's future: the pattern of our Christic transformation.
Mary Frohlich, RSCJ
Associate Professor of Spirituality
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