Ever since the attacks on the World Trade Center in New York on Sept. 11, 2001, there have been nonstop warnings to be alert to possible terrorist attacks. In U.S. airports repeated public announcements from Homeland Security advise whether the level of alert is yellow, orange or red. People are asked to be aware and wary.
Today’s second and third readings want us to move to red alert. Paul says it is time to wake from sleep. The Gospel warns us to stay awake and not be caught unaware. The images of what happens to those who are unprepared sound frightening: a thief in the night breaks in; one man in a field is taken and the other one left; one woman grinding at the mill is taken and the other one left. “Be prepared,” Jesus warns.
As we enter into Advent once again, we are not preparing for the coming of the Christ Child; that already happened more than 2,000 years ago. Rather, in Advent, we break our normal routine and move into heightened alert to perceive more intensely the ways in which Emmanuel, God-with-us, is moving us toward that vision of peace and unity that Isaiah so eloquently describes in the first reading. The prophet dreams of how all people stream toward the city of peace, all dwell in unity, swords are beaten into plowshares, spears into pruning hooks, and there is no more training for war again.
In the second reading Paul gives concrete advice about how we might do this intense preparation for the coming fullness of the peaceable kingdom. Paul exhorts Christians to “throw off works of darkness and put on the armor of light.” He recognizes that the peace of which Isaiah dreamed, and which the coming of Christ brought about in a new way, does not come without a struggle. It takes more than just wishing and longing to make it a reality. He imagines Christians going into battle, metaphorically speaking.
To prepare for the struggle, Paul would have us polish up our body armor of virtues. He speaks of the kind of training one must undergo to be able to be the bearer of light. He warns against excesses and indulgences that make one sated and sluggish. Instead, traditional practices of prayer and fasting can hollow out inner space to tend the light we are asked to bear. Paul also warns against rivalry and jealousy. By putting on Christ, we don armaments of forgiveness and community building.
The readings for this Sunday urge us to go beyond defensive preparations. Readying ourselves for the full expression of the peaceable kingdom also entails initiating nonviolent action to dismantle weapons of war and transform whatever there may be in our hearts that is not yet able to wage peace. Swords are not beaten into plowshares without intentional acts to dismantle the stockpile of weapons. The Second Vatican Council’s “Pasto-ral Constitution on the Church in the Modern Word” also reminds us: “While extravagant sums are being spent for the furnishing of ever new weapons, an adequate remedy cannot be provided for the multiple miseries afflicting the whole modern world” (No. 81).
The Gospel today impresses upon us the urgency of engaging in the struggles for peace. The images of the unprepared ones whose homes are broken into or who are left behind are not meant to frighten us, but they remind us that there will be an end time when all our preparations, all our attempts to be alert and all our efforts to disarm our hearts and wage peace will, in a critical moment, reach fruition. And we will be ready.