Making It Real

Joe McSweeny
December 21, 2011

When we were little children we believed in Santa Claus. Of course we did! That’s what mommy and daddy told us, and at that age what mommy and daddy said was true.

As we grew older we realized that Santa Claus is a fantasy. There is no jolly old fat man in a red costume, except, perhaps, on the feast days of Andrew the Apostle and St. Lucy. We weren’t too fazed by this, because we’d come to understand that Santa Claus was actually mom and dad, and the toys kept appearing under the Christmas tree.

Although we long ago stopped believing in Santa Claus, we continue to believe in the core values that give life and meaning to the fantasy: generosity, giving, bonhomie, joy. And so every year at Christmas, like mother and father before us, we do our best to realize the fantasy by giving presents and good cheer to loved ones and to the poor and needy. If we all sat around waiting for Santa Claus to come down from the sky on a sleigh, there would be no presents in anybody’s hearth and home. We ourselves make the fantasy come true.

During Advent we hear a lot about the nations beating “their swords into plowshares and their spears into pruning hooks” (mind you, this is to happen only after Israel battles its way back to the top of the international heap, certainly not while the world is still ruled by Assyria, er, Babylon, I mean Persia, no, wait, Greece… anybody but us!), about the leopard lying down with the kid, streams bursting forth in the desert and, in general, the earth being transformed into a heavenly paradise of peace, justice and abundance.

And we believe it. Of course we do! That’s what the Bible tells us, and what the Bible says is Scripture.

Or… can we, as adults living thousands of years later, recognize that Isaiah and the other Old Testament prophets were indulging in a bit of fantasy? After all, these ancient books of the bible were written, added to, edited, redacted and all that other good biblical scholarship stuff over the course of centuries, during which the Israelites were first conquered and exiled, then made subject to a series of foreign powers. In such circumstances there are only two options: to fall into despair, or to dream of better days ahead, of a glorious restoration in an ideal new age to come. That Israel chose the latter is a source of admiration and encouragement.

But let’s be honest with ourselves: do we really expect the world to be transformed into an earthly paradise? Does anyone actually believe that one day Israel will become the Mecca of the nations, that Beijing will make pilgrimage to Jerusalem? For that matter, are we truly anticipating the Second Coming this Advent? (According to the Mayan calendar the end of the world will be next Advent, on December 21, 2012, and we know ancient cultures always get it right.)

So what if the prophets engaged in rhapsodic flights of fancy? So what if they drew inspiration from a misguided nationalism and an obsession with retribution? So what if they got the time element wrong by thousands of years and counting? We still believe in the message of consolation in times of trouble, the message of faith and hope that gives life and meaning to the fantasy.

All this has got me wondering, what is it that keeps the world from being a heaven on earth? Three things come to mind: natural disasters, disease and human behavior.

Despite modern technology’s increasing ability to control and change the environment, when Nature really gets in a mood we head for cover and wait for it to blow over. There’s not much we can do about natural disasters.

Good habits of eating and exercise together with advances in medicine help us live longer and healthier lives, but in the end disease is going to get every one of us. This, too, is largely out of our hands.

But human behavior — now this we can do something about! If I turn my weapons into tools for tilling the earth, that’s one more pair of hands to cultivate peace. If I put aside my arrogance, that’s one more heart to observe what is right and do what is just. If I rein in my consumerism, that’s one more person to give the poor the bread they need and the water for which they thirst. The way we behave can transform the world into something like heaven for all of God’s people.

And so every year at Advent we do our best to realize the fantasy by renewing our faith and hope in God’s plan of salvation and by striving to make the world a better place. If we all sat around waiting for the Son of Man to come down from the sky on a cloud, there would be no peace, justice and abundance in anybody’s hearth and home. We ourselves make the fantasy come true.