Just a few days ago I returned home from Jerusalem. I was there with a group of 34 friends of Catholic Theological Union. We had intended to go at the end of the summer but the conflict in Gaza forced us to re-schedule. As always, Jerusalem was beautiful, as is the rest of the Holy Land that we visited. But also, "as always," that sacred city was experiencing some violence and tension as part of the ongoing conflict between Israel and the Palestinians. Our visit was not disrupted in any way, thanks be to God, but you could not be unaware of the elusive quest for peace in that part of the world.
Jerusalem and the longing for peace is a strong feature of the readings in the Lectionary for this first day of December. The first reading from Isaiah 2:1-5 speaks of "all nations" coming in procession to Mt. Zion, "the Lord’s mountain" which stands in the center of Jerusalem and is the site of the temple, "the house of the God of Jacob." It is here, through the presence of God’s love, that the nations would turn from violence to peacemaking. This is one of most well-known passages of the Old Testament, one emblazoned on the plaza in the front of the United Nations headquarters in New York: "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." That transformation, the text makes clear, can come about only by "walking in the light of the Lord".
The Psalm response also speaks of the longing for peace. It is one of the psalms (Ps 122), recited by the Jewish pilgrims who came from all over Israel to worship at the Jerusalem temple. Their prayer is one for peace: "Pray for the peace of Jerusalem…may peace be within your walls, prosperity in your buildings. Because of my relatives and friends I will say, ‘Peace be within you!’ Because of the house of the Lord our God, I will pray for your good." This is a prayer one could surely recite today for contemporary Jerusalem, but used here in the liturgy the city of Jerusalem takes on a universal symbolism-Jerusalem is every human gathering that longs for peace and an end to violence.
And finally for the gospel reading today we have Matthew’s account of the healing of the servant of the Centurion in Capernaum (Mt 8:5-11). This soldier has a profound respect for Jesus and, while pleading that Jesus heal his servant, he does not expect Jesus to enter his Gentile home. His humble words are now incorporated in the Eucharist: "Lord, I am not worthy to have you enter under my roof; only say the word and my servant will be healed." Jesus is so struck by the faith of this Gentile that he, too, evokes the dream of Isaiah found in our first reading today-"I say to you, many will come from the east and the west, and will recline with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob at the banquet in the Kingdom of heaven." The nations will come together in peace, sharing a rich banquet with God’s people Israel.
We live in a world that knows a lot of violence and division, including within our own borders. As I write this, there is strife in Ferguson, Missouri, and shootings in my beloved city of Chicago have become routine. Advent is a time of deep longing and hope. We are asked to lift up our hearts, to renew our faith, and to summon up our highest ideals. Peace may seem impossible for us to achieve but with God all things are possible. Let us pray for peace this Advent but also renew our commitment to work for peace in every circumstance our lives permit.
Father Donald Senior, C.P. is President Emeritus and Professor of New Testament at Catholic Theological Union. He lives at the Passionist residence in the Hyde Park neighborhood of Chicago.