Imagine yourself sitting at home watching your favorite evening program on television. Suddenly the screen goes blank. An unseen announcer says: “We interrupt this program for a special announcement. We take you to the White House in Washington.” In a moment you are watching the president. Sitting in the Oval Office, he announces an international agreement between the governments of all the major states in the Middle East: Afghanistan, Iran, Iraq, Israel, the Palestinians, and Saudi Arabia. Guaranteed by the governments of the United States, Great Britain, France, Germany, and Russia, the agreement provides for swift settlement of all conflicts in that area: an end to hostilities in Afghanistan, disarmament in Iran, the establishment of a Palestinian state living at peace with Israel. The guarantor governments, the president says, have formed a consortium to rebuild Iraq’s shattered infrastructure and provide education for the millions of young Arabs, girls included, there and in Afghanistan, embittered up to now by lack of opportunity to live the good life they see daily on television from outside their region.
What a sensation such an announcement would be! How people all over the world would rejoice to know that the fear of war and terrorism was banished and that the vast sums spent on arms could be devoted to constructive, peaceful purposes.
Is that a dream? Sadly, it is. Yet we find a description of just such a dream in the prophet Isaiah: “They shall beat their swords into plowshares . . . one nation shall not raise the sword against another, nor shall they train for war again” (Is 2:4). For Isaiah that was not a dream. It was reality. But it was a reality that he knew would be fulfilled only at the end of history. Nowhere in the Bible do we find any reason to expect that time will come within history when there will be no more wars. This should not discourage us from working to limit and, as far as possible, to banish all wars and conflicts — in our communities, in our nation, in the world. At the same time, we are not to entertain unrealistic hopes that can only be disappointed. The abolition of all conflict, and all war, will come only at the end of time. And it will come about not through human planning, but through God’s direct intervention.
When will God intervene? Jesus tells us that we cannot know. We can be sure of one thing only: that God’s intervention will catch many unprepared: “Two men will be out in the field; one will be taken, the other left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken, the other left” (Mt 24: 40f).
How can we prepare? Not by speculation about when the world will end, but by living now in the light of that crucial future event: by living in this world according to the standards of another world. That is what Paul tells us to do when he writes: “Let us throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12).
What are today’s works of darkness? To name them all is impossible. Here are just three small examples. It is a work of darkness when we accept the popular slogan, “Don’t get mad, get even.” How many conflicts in our world are due to people acting on those words? Had Jesus accepted them, there would have been no Calvary — and hence no empty tomb. If we are His followers, we need to seek not vengeance but forgiveness.
It is a work of darkness to believe what we are told by the advertising industry: that we cannot be happy without a never-ending supply of the goods and services portrayed daily on television and in the glossy magazines. That is false. Happiness comes not through getting; it comes through giving. Even Winston Churchill — a great man but not notably religious — knew that. “We make a living,” Churchill said once, “by what we get. We make a life by what we give.” People who have never discovered that are poor — no matter how large their houses or their bank accounts.
Yes, and it is a work of darkness when we tell women in problem pregnancies that there is a quick fix: “Get rid of it, and then all your troubles will be over.” Every year, thousands of women discover — to their sorrow — that after an abortion their troubles have only begun. Shame, guilt, and bitter regrets continue for months, often for years. Putting away this work of darkness means compassion for women in problem pregnancies — caring support which helps them do what every mother knows, deep in her heart, is right: protecting and nourishing the human life within, even and especially when this is costly.
Throwing off those works of darkness, and countless others, means accepting the ridicule of people who call darkness light. Remember Noah, Jesus tells us in the passage from Matthew’s Gospel quoted above — ridiculed by the people of his day for building a boat hundreds of miles from water. “Building an ark, are you, Noah?” his friends taunted him. “What on earth for? Expecting it to rain?” Oh, they had a good time with old Noah, you may be sure of that. “In those days before the flood,” Jesus says, “they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage . . . until the day when the flood came and carried them all away. So will it also be at the coming of the Son of Man” (Mt 24:38).
For those who are unprepared — for people who live according to the standards of this world, calling darkness light, and light darkness — the coming of the Son of Man will be a shock. They will be like the homeowner, Jesus warns, who sleeps soundly while the burglar taps on the mud brick wall of the man’s Palestinian house, to discover the hollowed-out place inside containing the family’s savings. When the burglar finds the spot, he digs through and takes everything. Too late, the homeowner discovers that he has been picked clean.
For those who are prepared, however, God’s final intervention will be a day of joy and fulfillment. These are the people who live in the darkness of this world with their faces turned toward the light of Jesus Christ. “The night is advanced,” Paul tells us, “the day is at hand. Let us then throw off the works of darkness and put on the armor of light” (Rom 13:12).
That is the Advent message. We are living in history’s final age. How long this final age will yet last, we cannot know — any more than we can know how long our own personal lives will last. What we can and do know is that this age will end when Christ comes again: not in obscurity, as He came to Mary and the shepherds; but dramatically, in an event so momentous that no one will doubt that history’s last hour has struck.
For those who ignore the Advent message and live for themselves, Christ’s coming will be a day of fear and disaster. For those, however, who are trying to live not for themselves but for Jesus Christ, and for others, His coming will be a joyful encounter with a dearly loved friend — whether this encounter be at our own personal death or at the end of history.
The Lord who loves us beyond our imagining allows us to choose what that final encounter will be like. It is the most important choice we shall ever have.