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First Sunday of Advent Year A

November 27, 2022
The Kings Bay Plowshares

Today’s Invitation

To disarm: Today we invite you to explore Isaiah’s vision of disarmament; engage with Pope Francis’ firm condemnation of possessing nuclear weapons; and embody the creative enactment of turning swords to plowshares in light of Liz McAlister and the Kings Bay Plowshares community.

Commentary by Eric Martin

First Sunday of Advent Year A

Reading 1

Isaiah 2:1-5

This is what Isaiah, begot of Amoz, saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In the last days, the mountain of YHWH’s Temple
will be established as the most important mountain
and raised above all other hills.
All nations will stream toward it;
many peoples will come and say,
“Come, let us climb YHWH’s mountain,
to the temple of the God of Jacob,
that we may be instructed in YHWH’s ways,
and walk in YHWH’s paths.”
Instruction will be given from Zion,
and the word of YHWH from Jerusalem.
YHWH will judge between the nations,
and render decisions for many countries.
They will beat their swords into plowshares
and their spears into pruning hooks;
one nation will not raise the sword against another,
nor will they train for war again.
O house of Leah and Rachel and Jacob, come,
let us walk in the light of YHWH!

Responsorial Psalm

Psalm 122: 1-2, 3-4, 4-5, 6-7, 8-9

Response: How I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of Our God!”

How I rejoiced when they said to me,
“Let us go to the house of Our God!”
And now our feet are standing
in your gateways, Jerusalem.
R: How I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of Our God!”

Jerusalem restored!
The city, one united whole!
Here the tribes come up,
the tribes of Our God.
R: How I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of Our God!”

They come to praise Our God’s name, I as God ordered Israel,
Here where the tribunals of justice are,
the royal tribunals of David.
R: How I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of Our God!”

Pray for peace in Jerusalem,
“Prosperity to your houses!
Peace inside your city walls!
Prosperity to your palaces!”
R: How I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of Our God!”

Since all are my neighbors and friends,
I say, “Peace be with you!”
Since Our God lives here,
I pray for your happiness.
R: How I rejoiced when they said to me, “Let us go to the house of Our God!”

Reading 2

Romans 13:11-14

You know the time in which we are living.
It is now the hour for you to wake from sleep,
for our salvation is closer than when we first accepted the faith.
The night is far spent; the day draws near.
So let us cast off deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light.

Let us live honorably as in daylight;
not in carousing and drunkenness,
not in sexual excess and lust,
not in quarreling and jealousy.
Rather, clothe yourselves with our Savior Jesus Christ,
and make no provision for the desires of the night.


Matthew 24:37-44

Jesus said to the disciples,
“The coming of the Promised One will be just like Noah’s time.
In the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking,
having relation- ships and getting married,
right up to the day Noah entered the ark.
They were totally unconcerned until the flood came and destroyed them.
So it will be at the coming of the Promised One.
Two people will be out in the field;
one will be taken and one will be left.
Two people will be grinding meal;
one will be taken and one will be left.
Therefore be vigilant!
For you do not know the day your Savior is coming.
“Be sure of this:
if the owner of the house had known when the thief was coming,
the owner would keep a watchful eye
and not allow the house to be broken into.
You must be prepared in the same way.
The Promised One is coming at the time you least expect.”

The Inclusive Lectionary © 2022 FutureChurch. All rights reserved. 

The inclusive language psalms:
Leach, Maureen, O.S.F. and Schreck, Nancy, O.S.F., Psalms Anew: A Non-sexist Edition
(Dubuque, IA: The Sisters of St. Francis, 1984).
Used with permission.



Biblical visions of God’s future as calls for discipleship in the present

Daniel Berrigan, who expressed his theology through activism as much as his writing, interpreted biblical visions of God’s future as calls for discipleship in the present. To him, apocalyptic scripture provides a connective tissue between today and the end of history. “To exist at any given point of time is to exist at the end of time,” Berrigan said in his 1970 book, No Bars to Manhood. “It is to contain and embody in oneself the spiritual resources that will be purified and vindicated at the end. The human is called, by choice, by moral struggle, to make the end of things present to one’s life” (83). In this view, a passage like Isaiah 2:1-5 informs how a Christian is to enflesh God’s spirit here and now.

But because today’s context differs from those that produced the Bible, Berrigan says, people have no concrete blueprint to copy, no code that makes clear how to translate scripture into practical witness. It becomes necessary, then, to engage in trial and error. The human is a wrestler in this view, a spiritual scientist in the laboratory of life. To become fully human is to engage in a messy process. While on the run from the FBI after burning draft files in the Catonsville Nine action of 1968, he wrote in Dark Night of Resistance that “to live as a human is to face the whirlwind” (48). The storms of historical circumstance strip us of the ability to simply copy prophets, saints, and saviors. “About methods in such times as these, no one knew,” he said when on trial for the Catonsville action. “We improvised our lives as we went along” (The Trial of the Catonsville Nine, x).

Yet the facer of the whirlwind is not wholly without an anchor. Berrigan’s theology agreed with Jesus’ words: “The one who looks at me is seeing the one who sent me.” And so too could one find a divine voice, however incompletely, in passages like today’s from Isaiah. How then can we interpret this text, a revelation of God’s will for the future that can seem anachronistic in the age of advanced warfare? Modern militaries long ago moved on from swords and spears. What would it mean to turn swords into plowshares and spears into pruning hooks in the age of nuclear stockpiling? 

Answering this question required changing a community’s spiritual geography, moving towards becoming “the Church at the edge,” as he called it in a 1966 essay. This ecclesial metaphor invokes the kind of danger the prophets and Jesus’ group of disciples found themselves in. Not only is the true church at the periphery – of society, of institutions, of respectability, of the difference between the human and the divine – but it walks along a precipice. The church is at risk or it is not at the edge, and therefore not faithful to its inception. (This subtle distinction yields a different ecclesiology from Pope Francis’ call for a “church at the margins,” which similarly calls it to tend to those placed on the outskirts of society but lacks the element of danger, of precarity.) It is also what Berrigan named “a Church at the edge of new opportunities” opened by risk and suffering, and his model for it was the poor churches in 1960s Latin America joining movements against oligarchy and fascism (“Church at the Edge,” 13). In them he saw an apocalyptic consciousness, people bearing sacrifice for others in concrete ways. They are part of the “revolutionary” remnant, shouldering the true church’s message and helping detonate “the bomb” buried in such communities (No Bars to Manhood, 36).

Berrigan argued that only in such a place could a church begin to grapple with the words of the prophet Isaiah, “They will beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; one nation will not raise the sword against another, and never again will they train for war.” 

Commentary by Eric Martin

Eric Martin is part of the Catholic Worker and Charlottesville Charis communities who writes shoddy poems and teaches religion classes at UCLA and Loyola Marymount.

Engage Catholic Social Teaching

Peace and Justice

Pope Francis has spoken strongly and unambiguously about the evils of nuclear weapons and the necessity of ridding the world of their presence. Under previous popes since World War II, the church’s approach to nuclear weapons remained tethered to a staunchly Cold War mentality that tended toward accepting their presence for the purpose of deterrence. Pope John Paul II, for example, said in 1982 that maintaining nuclear weapons was “morally acceptable” for this reason. 

Berrigan and his communities consistently proclaimed that this logic was nowhere to be found in the gospels, and had he lived a year longer, he could have heard Francis sharply depart from it. The pope surprised high-level Vatican officials in a November 2017 address when he said that after taking into account the vulnerability of humans, ecological devastation, and the possibility of accidental detonation – highlighted by incidents such as those like the 1961 Goldsboro crash in North Carolina – “the threat of their use, as well as their very possession, is to be firmly condemned.” The strong language of condemnation is all the more striking coming from a pope who tends to embrace pastoral rhetoric. 

Three years later, in his encyclical Fratelli Tuti, Francis expanded on this teaching in a more official format. In the 2020 document, he teaches that the doctrine of nuclear deterrence can no longer be viewed as adequate in the 21st century, an age of poverty, terrorism, cybersecurity, and ecological crisis. Not only would use of a nuclear weapon lead to “catastrophic humanitarian and environmental consequences” (262), but he also questions what kind of world depends on stability through fear. He therefore calls “total elimination of nuclear weapons” a moral imperative. Only dialogue rather than threats of mutual annihilation can ground a sustainable and just peace between peoples. Crucially, Francis notes that the vast amounts of money needed to maintain and update nuclear weapons can no longer be diverted from hungry mouths across the globe.  In the United States alone, $1.2 trillion was allocated by then-President Obama in 2016 for modernizing and maintaining the nation’s nuclear stockpile. Each of those dollars is stolen from those in need of food.

Nuclear weapons, Francis argues in a point already laid out by Catholics like Berrigan decades earlier, grant war “an uncontrollable destructive power over great numbers of innocent civilians” (258). This is the first time humanity has had this level of power over its survival, but no guarantees exist that those in power will wield it wisely. “We can no longer think of war as a solution,” he says, even those supposedly in line with the just war theory. And in a concluding thought on the topic he echoes Pope Paul VI in his 1965 speech before the United Nations: “Never again war!” With our Isaiah passage in mind, the quote essentially amounts to: No more 21st-century swords!


A Contemplative Exercise

Imagine the scene, the promised spectacle of nations coming before the mountain of God: Heads of state arrive with their nuclear footballs, military generals with their command lines. To the foothills stream the Hancock Air Base personnel with their MQ9 Reaper drone pilot equipment and the MIT scientists with their robotic dogs. Police departments emerge prostrate from their federally-provided tanks, Pentagon officials from their banal cubicles, and the FBI from their spy operations against activists for racial justice. Guantanamo guards lay down their electrical torture wires, officers drop their tear gas cannisters, and ICE detention facility employees present the cruel cages that have been used to kidnap children from their parents indefinitely at the bidding of ‘pro-family’ politicians. Henry Kissinger personally fetches all 5,800 nuclear warheads he nurtured and raised, abashedly pointing the rockets away from the high, sacred summit.

All metal, all mechanical flotsam gathered before the mount lay in uneasy hope. Planners and politicians bend their knees, don dunce cap and sackcloth and ash, and request to climb the holy path. “We know the way of the wicked will perish,” they confess, “so we want to be instructed in God’s ways.” Torah flows forth and God judges the nation states, their leaders, their populations. The officials and bigwigs turn their drones to peace cranes, their missiles to missals. Nations no longer even prepare for war after that day, using those trillions of dollars for building up instead of shedding blood. 

Imagine, who enjoys what newfound freedoms? Imagine too, the open hands to be held, how the world-house walks God’s path together. But imagine finally, if you can, the sacred teachings coming not through a heavenly blast but a human ambassador of the Word, a community living God’s future now. How might they present themselves?

A Witness

Liz McAlister

Liz McAlister, the longtime Catholic peace activist, may be a helpful example. Born in 1939, she became a sister with the Religious of the Sacred Heart of Mary. An art teacher, she joined those opposing the Vietnam War and participated in the draft board raid movement that destroyed draft files sending young men to war. After marrying Josephite anti-war activist Phil Berrigan, the two co-founded Jonah House in Baltimore in 1973, doing gospel-based resistance against nuclear weapons and the culture of nuclear idolatry. She persistently protested at the Pentagon, the Johns Hopkins Applied Physics Lab, and the White House while raising three children, serving significant prison time, and helping to teach those who came to join Jonah House’s activities. 

Jonah House sparked what became the Plowshares movement, started in 1980 when eight people prayerfully entered a General Electric plant in Pennsylvania and damaged nose cones designed for nuclear weapons. It was a creative enactment of Isaiah’s call from today’s reading to turn swords into plowshares. McAlister joined a plowshares action at Griffiss Air Force Base in New York in 1983, receiving a three-year prison sentence. She continued to act as support for more actions after her release, and again joined the Kings Bay Plowshares action in 2018 in Georgia. Speaking of possessing nuclear weapons on their website, she says, “We must pull it back; we must turn it around; we must stop it – for God’s sake, for the sake of the children, for the sake of life on earth.”

A Community

Kings Bay Plowshares

On April 4, 2018, McAlister and six other long-time Catholic Workers and activists entered Kings Bay Naval Base in Georgia to incarnate Isaiah 2 once again. Chosen to coincide with the anniversary of the assassination of Martin Luther King, Jr., who staunchly opposed the existence of nuclear weapons, the group now known as the Kings Bay Plowshares came with the words of Pope Francis into the heart of a military missile shrine. They chose this particular site because it houses six nuclear-capable Trident submarines which have the capacity to cause 3,600 levels of damage that was dropped on Hiroshima. But the group pointed out that the weapons are in use even when not detonated. “Nuclear weapons kill every day through our mining, production, testing, storage, and dumping, primarily on Indigenous Native land,” their action statement reads. “This weapons system is a cocked gun being held to the head of the planet.”

Their witness extended beyond April 4, as they used their court date to put the legality of nuclear weapons on trial, and even the state admitted that their action was both nonviolent and sacramental. When they were found guilty, hundreds of supporters sang “Rejoice in the Lord always, again I say rejoice” in the courtroom, processing down the halls and through the metal detector and outside. The seven – Liz McAlister, Clare Grady, Martha Hennessy, Steve Kelly, S.J., Patrick O’Neill, Mark Colville, and Carmen Trotta – continued their action while serving sentences of varying lengths in federal prison. Throughout the prayerful and direct witness, their animating piece of scripture has been, as their action statement concludes, “Swords into Plowshares!”