The Christmas tree in Manger Square will be lit tonight [8.30 pm addendum: the tree has been lit!]. The Christmas lights went up in the streets of Bethlehem a couple weeks ago, and I notice a new little shop selling Christmas trees and blow-up Santa Clauses every time I go through town. You don’t need to be a scholar of the apocalypse to understand these signs: Advent has arrived (perhaps a strange verb to describe a season of waiting, but nonetheless…).
In the Anglican church, the Old Testament scripture readings for today, the first Sunday in Advent, push peace:
They shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more (Isaiah 2:5).
Pray for the peace of Jerusalem: “May they prosper who love you. Peace be within your walls, and security within your towers.” For the sake of my relatives and friends I will say, “Peace be within you.” For the sake of the house of the LORD our God, I will seek your good (Psalm 2:6-9).
These readings remind us that Advent is a season of waiting, expecting, longing for the coming of the Prince of Peace.
I think at Christmas time I sometimes associate this peace with visions of quiet fields under starry skies, of softly falling snow and candlelight flickering from the window, of relaxing with family and friends once the presents are wrapped and the cookies baked. But is this the kind of peace the biblical authors had in mind? I’m intrigued by the presence of war in these texts about peace—the weapons of war are remade into farming equipment, and the peace of Jerusalem is protected by walls and towers. This conjunction of peace and war is part of the texts I’ve been working with lately. For many in the ancient Mediterranean worlds, including biblical authors, ‘peace’ simply meant the absence of the direct violence of war. Roman general Scipio decides to besiege one rebellious city precisely because there was ‘peace’ in the area (Livy, Ab Urbe Condita 28.19.4); in fact, the subjugated Britons complain that the Romans make a desert and call it ‘peace’ (Tacitus, Agricola 30-31). According to one proponent of war in Thucydides’s Peloponnesian War, “peace is more firmly established when it follows war” (1.124.2 [Loeb Classical Library]). Even if an ancient city was at ‘peace,’ there was always the danger of sudden attack (note Judges 18:27, for instance—a common scene as well in Greek and Roman historiography), perhaps justifying Pericles’s assertion that warriors are needed to protect the peaceful (Thucydides 2.63.3).
Of course, ‘peace’ in the Bible is associated with righteousness, wisdom, or wholeness. But it is also, often, used as the opposite of war and violence and described with the vocabulary of war, as in Isaiah 2 and Psalm 122. The collect and the New Testament readings for the first Sunday of Advent likewise disrupt our expectations of Hallmark-esque Christmas peace. The Gospel reading, Matthew 24:36-44, is a promise not of peace, but of judgment: “be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour.” The second New Testament reading is Romans 13:11-14, a text about the coming day—it’s time to wake up, says Paul; it’s time to live in (honorable) light rather than (debauched) darkness. Romans 13:12 reappears in the collect of the day:
Almighty God, give us grace to cast away the works of darkness, and put on the armor of light, now in the time of this mortal life in which your Son Jesus Christ came to visit us in great humility; that in the last day, when he shall come again in his glorious majesty to judge both the living and the dead, we may rise to the life immortal; through him who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
On the first Sunday of Advent, the beginning of the season of waiting for the Prince of Peace, we pray for the grace to put on armor. And this uncomfortable (for me, anyway) conjunction of peace and war continues through Advent—as in the song of Zechariah in Luke 1, for instance, or the soldiers massacring babies in Matthew 2. Perhaps we should expect this mix; after all, according to Matt 10:34, Jesus didn’t come to bring peace, but a sword.
But wait, you say; Jesus’ sword is a metaphor for the family divisions in the following verses, and isn’t the armor in Romans and the collect also metaphorical for the ‘war’ against sin? Well, yes, I reply, but I also say it can be too easy to run with the metaphor, and forget the reality. Isaiah was written to people who had first-hand experience with war. Jesus and his audiences lived in an occupied country. Paul’s readers in Rome would have seen armor every day on soldiers, triumphal arches, funerary monuments, even the coins they used. It’s little wonder that people who lived in the midst of war used the imagery of war to describe peace.
Christians here in Israel and Palestine may not see swords and Roman-style armor on a regular basis, but they do certainly see other kinds of weapons and armor every day. The backdrop of violence in society makes the hope of peace in Advent all the more necessary. And perhaps the mixing of war and peace in the readings and prayer for today accomplishes the same end for readers who live in peaceful places. To start Advent with the imagery of war reminds us why we need the peace we are anticipating.