The first reading in this first Tuesday of Advent is from chapter 11 of the prophet Isaiah. It is one of the most beautiful passages in the Old Testament. The prophet describes a future era of peace, the messianic kingdom brought about by God’s anointed one. For us as Christians we believe that Jesus is the one whom the prophet foretold: “On that day, a shoot shall sprout from the stump of Jesse and from his roots a bud shall blossom. The Spirit of the Lord shall rest upon him, a spirit of wisdom and of understanding, a spirit of counsel and of strength, a spirit of knowledge and fear of the Lord, and his delight shall be the fear of the Lord.”
Jesse was the father of King David and so the messiah to come will be of the lineage of David but this future figure will be more than David and will usher in a reign of unending peace and justice: “But he shall judge the poor with justice, and decide aright for the land’s afflicted…justice shall be the band around his waist, and faithfulness a belt on his hips.”
One of the most startling features of this prophetic vision is that the era of peace and justice God will bring about extends even to nature itself. This is one of the best-known parts of this biblical text, worth quoting in full:
Then the wolf shall be a guest of the lamb,
and the leopard shall lie down with the kid;
The calf and the young lion shall browse together,
with a little child to guide them.
The cow and the bear shall be neighbors,
together their young shall rest;
the lion shall eat hay like the ox.
The baby shall play by the cobra’s den,
and the child lay his hand on the adder’s lair.
There shall be no harm or ruin on all my holy mountain;
for the earth shall be filled with knowledge of the LORD,
as water covers the sea.
In his encyclical on the environment, Laudato Si’, Pope Francis has reminded us that we share a “common home” with all of creation and as Christians made in God’s own image, we are to be responsible for the world around us—our fellow human beings, of course, but also all of God’s exquisite creation.
Isaiah’s prophetic vision, written more than 2,500 years ago, remarkably captures that same inclusive spirit. God’s peace that we long for in this Advent season extends to all of God’s wondrous creation. In the early 19th century, the American artist and Quaker preacher, Edward Hicks, painted a scene directly inspired by this passage from Isaiah 11. He called it, “God’s Peaceable Kingdom.” It depicts a scene of great harmony—in the forefront there is a gathering of wild animals and little children freely mingling (as Isaiah depicts) and in the background the first European pilgrims meet peacefully with Native Americans on the sea shore.
We know that history has proven how difficult reconciliation and peace are to achieve. The current political and social strife of our own country makes that abundantly clear. But during the season of Advent the church invites us to dream God’s own dreams of peace and justice, and to plead with God to help us to build, in the words of Pope Francis, a “civilization of love”—a “peaceable kingdom.”
Fr. 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.