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Advent reflection

Vision of peace shimmers in Advent scripture


For many years I have found myself praying in Advent for a world at peace. No small objectives do I put before God; no petitions for lost umbrellas or personal solvency. Something about the rhetoric of Advent calls for a world-sized agenda. “Let us pray that we may take Christ’s coming seriously. All-powerful God, increase our strength of will for doing good that Christ may find an eager welcome at his coming.”

Since Sept.11, that longing has intensified. Many Americans have made a special effort to do good in this time, to mend the broken threads of society. My daughter and her work colleagues in New York City went to the nearest hospital and signed up as volunteers. Bishops and pastors took up donations. Local committees organized benefits for the American Red Cross. Some held back on selling their stocks; others got on planes; elementary school teachers organized class projects “to help the children in New York City.” Now many Americans are focused not only on America’s protecters -- firefighters, police, military -- but also on the fragile Afghan people caught in the middle of a military response.

Perhaps most significant, some have turned over a new leaf about following world affairs. Many who sloughed off the bombings of the U.S.S. Cole and the two African embassies say that from now on they will try to be wiser and more vocal about world policies.

In some ways, however, the battle is all in the soul: to continue believing in God’s providence and protection, to hold on to faith when faith itself seems part of the problem. Much of what we see happening in fundamentalist movements (ours and theirs) entails a kind of puritanical repression. In Saudi Arabia, we learn, citizens don’t speak out because they fear the volunteer watchdogs in The Society for the Promotion of Virtue and the Prevention of Vice. A similar group existed under the Taliban. Such groups enforce the wearing of veils and long beards. They also crack down on free discussion and dissident views. Sadly, certain Americans have attempted a similar ministry. Exercising their First Amendment rights, they accused groups they disapprove of, such as feminists and homosexuals, and claimed that such groups had brought God’s wrath upon the whole nation.

I was comforted by the prayer service in Yankee Stadium in which Muslims, Christians and Jews prayed together. It struck me as “only in America” when Bette Midler sang a spiritual solo. Midler is the kind of woman the Taliban would look askance at. Probably most folks in our country think she is risqué. But, with its amalgam of firefighters and cops and rabbis and pastors and imams, that prayer service symbolized the American melting pot, an ideal we need to remember in dark times. Admittedly, the atheists felt excluded and needed their own way of mourning. But on the whole, I think we celebrated not who we are but who we want to be.

“In the days to come, the mountain of the Lord’s house shall be established. ... For from Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.”

There is a sadness in this: that one of the holy cities that seems to cause a lot of the trouble, Jerusalem, is held up always in scripture as the mystical city of peace. When we pray through and with the Advent scriptures, the vision of peace shimmers there, part of God’s alluring promise to us. “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.”

Many intellectuals and political theorists have come to suppose that religion is the root cause of violence, that the fight against terrorism and hatred will never succeed until religion itself is stamped out. Since Sept. 11, I have, like many Americans, asked for the roots of my hidden hatreds to be exposed to me, and to be freed of the cultural conditioning that might make me vengeful and angry. I ask for the peace of Christ to come into my heart, to cleanse me of all hatred and vindictiveness. This transformation I pray for in myself, in society, will not be done without God. Jesus Christ is the one who asks me to live at peace with friend and stranger. Without God’s sovereign love, I am powerless to be good and to do good.

Emilie Griffin lives and writes in Alexandria, La. Her latest book is Doors into Prayer: an Invitation.

National Catholic Reporter, December 14, 2001