Blessed are the peacemakers

  • November 23, 2007
First Sunday of Advent (Year A), Dec. 2 (Isaiah 2:1-5; Psalm 122; Romans 13:11-14; Matthew 24:37-44)

When we say “utopia” or “paradise” peace usually pops into our mind. Isaiah doesn’t disappoint us, for he uses some of the most beautiful and evocative language in the Old Testament to set human hearts afire with hope and determination: Swords into ploughshares, and spears into pruning hooks — an end to war and even thinking about war.

It doesn’t get any better than that, and yet the reality of this hope is most elusive. Tragically, swords and spears are turned into little else but guns, planes, tanks and bombs. Even the “peace dividend” resulting from the end of the Cold War has evaporated and once again we find ourselves trapped in a morass of hatred, fear and violence.

The words are not placed in Isaiah’s prophecy to mock us but to inspire us, providing us with a vision of hope for the future. It represents God’s wish for humanity and the world. But despite the rather inane popular slogan “Give peace a chance!” it doesn’t just happen. Standing in its way is human consciousness, with all of its fear, insecurity, selfishness and greed. And that consciousness creates cultures and ideologies, as well as the political, economic and religious structures that reflect that negativity.

God will help us and bless our efforts, but it is up to us to make the first moves. That is why Jesus blesses the peacemakers in the Sermon on the Mount. Isaiah’s prophetic image links the beauty of this peace-filled Earth with a willingness to turn towards God and be taught. Before that can be done, humans must make some decisions. They must decide that they will no longer be enslaved to the twisted idea that violence is the answer or solution to human problems.

Violence and exploitive behaviour are not counted as entertainment or maturity. Competition and greed must give way to equality and sharing. There will be no lasting peace until humanity learns to walk in the ways of God.

“The night is far gone and the day is near” — these words seem a little hollow and premature in view of the painful two millennia that have passed since they were written. The last century alone was filled with suffering on a scale never before experienced in human history. How do we continue to use these words today in a meaningful way? We will never know when the “end” will occur and that is not of prime importance. But what we do in the in-between time means everything.

The exhortation to lay aside the works of darkness, negativity and self-indulgence are as direct a challenge today as when they were written. They are a call to stop playing games with God and not to take God or the gift of our time on Earth for granted. We must take seriously the work of redemption that is at hand, both our own and that of all humanity. Redemption certainly includes peacemaking and justice.

Long ago, a rather self-centred and confused young man took the words of this very same passage seriously when he idly picked up a copy of the scriptures and began to read. His name was Augustine, and the rest is history.

How swiftly and suddenly the end can come for many people. Natural disasters, wars, 9/11, catastrophic illness — all of these can cut short one’s life with so many good things still undone and loving words unspoken. In its original context, the author and his fellow believers were certain that the Lord’s surprise return — itself a cataclysmic event — would catch many unawares. He warns all to be awake because these events occur while people are lulled to sleep by the normal routine of ordinary human existence.

But this does not mean looking over our shoulder or pacing nervously back and forth. It is not a hide-and-seek game with God. We will never know, despite the number-crunching and sign deciphering efforts of a few, when that hour will be. That is the way it should be.

A lifetime of flawed but sincere efforts in the heat of the day is worth more than a fear-inspired burst of energy when shadows are falling. Staying awake means paying attention and remaining focused on who we are and why we are here.