It’s Christmas card season again. Expect an avalanche of Renaissance Madonnas in your mailbox. And there will be angels too, of course: both the cute and chubby kind who look like escapees from Saturday morning cartoons and the long, severe, ethereal models who actually appear capable of bearing fateful tidings from God.
While neither Gallup nor Pew pollsters have ever concerned themselves with compiling the statistics, I’m pretty sure you’ll also see a good number of shepherds and kings—certainly more than you do in an average calendar month. The Star of Bethlehem will waft across many landscapes, bestowing its signature rays in the direction of a certain stable. There will be Holy Family groupings, posed solemnly for their close-up in salvation history. These images have been rendered countless times across many centuries, interpreted by artists both skilled and merely hungry.
And yes, there will be holiday-themed cards bearing evergreen trees and wreaths with bows; fat Santas and merry children building snowfolks; and far, far too many penguins and dogs. Count on it.
But I hope at least one person in your circle of family and friends gifts you with one of the most significant scenes of the Advent season: the Isaiah prophecy known as the peaceable kingdom. You’ll know this card when you see it: It’s the one with the lion and the lamb lying down together in surprisingly placid fellowship. Truth be told, the lion and the lamb never actually lie together in Isaiah. If you read the entire passage in chapter 11, you’ll see the wolf entertained by the lamb, the leopard befriending a young goat, and a calf and lion grabbing lunch together. A cow and bear share the same subdivision, and a lion learns to adopt the ox’s diet plan. A baby plays near a cobra, and altogether the little ones of human and beast all learn to get along without fear.
In a nutshell, Isaiah presents a prediction of farm, forest, and savanna animals making friends, with the most vulnerable members of each having reason to trust the most ferocious. Sometimes the scene is portrayed as a happy jumble of zoo animals hanging out together in peaceful proximity. There’s always a monkey dangling from a vine, even though Isaiah likely never imagined a monkey. No matter which species make the photo shoot, the peaceable kingdom is a wonderful, endearing portrait of a harmonious world.
Isaiah, of course, wasn’t talking about animals learning to embrace their inner vegetarian. This visual reinstatement of the Garden of Eden is about a world restored to original innocence. While not intended as an allegory—that is, Isaiah didn’t represent individual nations by their spirit animals in this prophecy—Isaiah is very much concerned with the spirits of predator and prey that inhabit the political landscape of every generation. Some among us are ever on the prowl, looking for someone to fleece, dominate, or devour. Others prefer to live harmlessly and defenselessly, a smile our only weapon in the war of everyday encounters.
Can such lions and lambs ever nap together without cataclysm? History is dubious. But prophecy says they can. In order for such a revolution of engagement to occur, nature itself needs to be transformed.
At the end of a long, bloody year like this one, this prophecy can sound like fantasy. The Sunday after the Orlando massacre in June my pastor entered the assembly wearing the traditional black vestments used for funerals. It was Ordinary Time, but the priest was in black, not green, and the assembly shuddered. We are rapidly becoming a nation that courts death with every hateful phrase we utter, our presider said. If we don’t want to bury the entire future, one young person at a time, every one of us has to commit to words and ways and deeds of love, without exception. We have to start by loving our enemies, safeguarding those with whom we vehemently disagree, and respecting the very life that flows through their veins—no matter what color they are, where they were born, what language they speak, or who they love. It was a terrible liturgical moment, to see our presider robed in black on an ordinary Sunday. It felt like a Dies Irae, a day of wrath incarnate in dark fabric, like a flag of doom hoisted in our midst.
At the end of the homily, the priest exited to the sacristy. He returned with the pure white vestments of Easter and began the Liturgy of the Eucharist with this bold wordless proclamation of our capacity to be redeemed and resurrected. Our hearts leapt with gratitude at this silent signal of faith in our capacity—in humanity’s capacity—to be reclaimed from death and restored to life, even at this late chapter of our story. Sometimes you just have to love the priesthood, with its iconic authority to orchestrate the recovery of hope.
In a world full of violence and a society drenched in rage where so many personal dreams have been thwarted, how can we contemplate an image of the peaceable kingdom with anything other than a sigh? As Martin Luther King Jr. used to tell his disciples, the Beloved Community is possible. We can live together across all present divisions and reach genuine harmony if we want to—but we will have to live for it and some of us will likely die for it. Laying down your life for love and peace is quite a different story than killing out of fear or spite or the need to spread the pain around. How many of us are ready to say the peaceable kingdom is worth the cost of our lives?
This time of year, as the Christmas cards snow down on us their merry scenes and good wishes, it can seem awkward to talk about the outrage in the world and especially the violence in our own hearts. What does rage have to do with angels bending near the earth, touching harps of gold? How does violence fit into peaceful Bethlehem, with cattle lowing beside a newborn child? We may want to forget that it’s precisely the long centuries of conflict and division that brought that baby to earth in the first place and caused those angels to bend so close to shepherds. Even while the star of destiny shines down on the tranquil domestic scene, close by a king is plotting the massacre of baby boys. And though we don’t like to think about it, this babe nestled warmly in his mother’s arms will one day be placed in her arms again as a cold and lifeless body. The violence can’t be separated from Bethlehem. Kings bearing gifts are never far from kings swearing reprisals in the world’s story. It has always been so.
The peaceable kingdom is a gauntlet of prophecy thrown down against history’s darkness, daring us to pick it up. If we all resolve to become predators, this kingdom will never come. If lambs continue to cower and hide from lions, the threat of the hunt will never end. The risk of proximity is the only real way to seek understanding and to gain trust. When the peaceable kingdom becomes more than a Christmas card, when it becomes a movement, we may finally have peace on earth and good will everywhere.
This article also appears in the December 2016 issue of U.S. Catholic (Vol. 81, No. 12, pages 47–49).
Image: Edward Hicks, Peaceable Kingdom (1834) via Wikimedia Commons