Father Donald Senior, CP

Praying and hoping for ‘the peaceable kingdom’

Sunday, November 27, 2016

Perspectives on Scripture

Dec. 4: 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

The 19th century American Quaker Edward Hicks composed a famous painting inspired by the reading from the prophet Isaiah that we hear on this second Sunday of Advent. The shoreline of a tranquil lake is filled with animals of all sorts, interspersed with children sitting in the midst of lions and tigers, completely unafraid. In the background, colonial soldiers and Native Americans mingle together, conversing in friendship. He entitled it, “The Peaceable Kingdom.” This appealing scene of peace and harmony reflected both the vision of the prophet Isaiah and Hicks’ own Quaker religious tradition.

The passage from Isaiah begins with a vivid image: “A shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse …” Jesse was the father of King David, and the image suggests that from the sheared-off trunk of this great lineage — ravaged by the exile in which the king was killed and the people deported — ultimately a small green sprig would emerge and God’s promise to David and his successors would be renewed. This ideal king would be endowed with great wisdom through God’s Spirit and would bring true justice, repelling the wicked and lifting up the poor and downtrodden. Through the work of this future king, a time of peace would cover the land and even the tensions in nature would be reconciled, with the wolf as the “guest of the lamb,” and the leopard lying down with the kid goat, and the cow and the bear as neighbors. Children would not be afraid of any harm; a baby could lay his hand on the lair of the poisonous snake. “There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain. …” As the use of this passage in the liturgy attests, the early Christians saw in this a premonition of the coming of Jesus himself, the king of peace and justice.

Who would not long for a “peaceable kingdom” like this? A few days ago, I was invited to attend a briefing on the situation in Syria presented by the United States special envoy to that tortured country. He described the absolute chaos and unbridled violence taking place there with no end in sight. The most heart-wrenching victims are innocent children being killed and wounded at an alarming rate. No “peaceable kingdom” in sight here.

Yet, in the midst of a violent world and our own deeply divided country, we need to keep our hopes alive this Advent. In fact, that is one of the very purposes of Advent — to encourage hope. This is what Paul writes to his community at Rome. What is written in the Scriptures, he says, “was written for our instruction, that by endurance and by the encouragement of the Scriptures we might have hope.” Our God, Paul reminds us, is a “God of endurance and encouragement.”

The Gospel selection depicts John the Baptist preaching the need for repentance. He took his stand in the desert where the Jordan River spills into the Dead Sea. It was here, in the region of Jericho, that Israel had first moved from the desert into the promised land, and it was here that John would call his people to renew their lives and be ready for the coming of God’s kingdom. But, John emphasizes, it is not enough to long for the kingdom or to perform a ritual of cleansing and renewal in the Jordan River. He challenges religious leaders to “produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.” This is an emphasis of Matthew’s Gospel as a whole; Jesus himself in the Sermon on the Mount would warn his disciples that it is not those who cry “Lord, Lord!” who will enter the Kingdom of God but those “who do the will of my heavenly Father.” (Mt 7:21).

We need to long for peace and not give up the hope that God’s peaceable kingdom will come. We are also to remember the powerful words of Pope Paul VI to the United Nations: “If you want peace, work for justice.”


  • scripture