First Sunday of Advent

This week’s readings are Isaiah 2:1-5 and Pa Nung’s “Snow in a Silver Bowl.”

Isaiah 2:1-5 (Revised English Bible):

This is the message which Isaiah son of Amoz received in a vision about Judah and Jerusalem.

In days to come
the mountain of the Lord’s house
will be set over all other mountains,
raised high above the hills.
All the nations will stream towards it,
and many peoples will go and say,
‘Let us go up to the mountain of the Lord,
to the house of the God of Jacob,
that he may teach us his ways
and that we may walk in his paths.’
For instruction comes from Zion,
and the word of the Lord from Jerusalem.
He will judge between the nations
as arbiter among many peoples.
They will beat their swords into mattocks
and their spears into pruning-knives;
nation will not lift sword against nation
nor ever again be trained for war.
Come, people of Jacob,
let us walk in the light of the Lord.

Pa Nung’s “Snow in a Silver Bowl” from The Whole World Is a Single Flower:

A monk asked Zen Master Pa Nung, “What is the school of Kanadeva?”
“Piling up snow in a silver bowl,” Pa Nung replied.

1. What is the school of Kanadeva?
2. “Piling up snow in a silver bowl” What does that mean?
3. Now snow, no bowl, then what?

Commentary: What you see and what you hear are your true friends.

Today, on the first day of the new church year, we read from Isaiah. He was a prophet of Israel who lived and wrote in the 700s B.C.E, long before the advent of Christianity. Yet from its beginning Christianity has relied heavily on Isaiah for various reasons, not the least of which is the perceived prediction of Jesus’ birth. Various Christian beliefs echo today’s passage, include Jesus’s return as a judge and a new heaven on earth. Many imagine that once this comes about humanity “will beat their swords into mattocks and their spears into pruning-knives; nation will not lift sword against nation, nor ever again be trained for war.”

Just as the Christian vision of Jesus returning to bring judgement feels very remote to me, so does does fulfillment of Isaiah’s vision seem distant and removed. It is in the future, and the main player is a God who so often refuses to reveal Godself to humanity. Perhaps even more fantastical, all of humanity will accept God’s judgement and spend their time caring for one another. While this vision might seem full of beauty, as presented in this text the path is paternalistic and patriarchal and raises many questions. Why will human hearts accept the judgement of God? Will the judgements seem genuine and fair to the losers? Will the main tool of coercion be “fear of the Lord?”

This week’s reading from The Whole World Is a Single Flower is a teaching from Zen Master Pa Nung. The master’s beautiful response to the monk’s question, which I read as “what is the meaning of Buddhism?”, is both simple and complex. The image is simple, and yet how could the whole of Buddhism be reduced to snow falling into a bowl? From the teachings  of other Zen Masters we know that they often respond to such deep questions with examples from their immediate surroundings. Who was Pa Nung and where was he? Perhaps it was winter where he was, and there happened to be a silver bowl just within sight. Pa Nung invites us to return to the moment and view what is happening with clarity.

Pa Nung’s return to the moment is helpful in reading our text from Isaiah. If we come down from our lofty dreams of peace and prosperity, we remember these are the continually unfulfilled dreams of generations who have waited for God to intervene. Even God’s intervention as Jesus seems not to have done the trick. Instead of dreaming about the future, come back to the moment and observe what is going on. What’s happening right now? Is snow collecting in a silver bowl? Is it a blizzard? Rather than waiting for a divine intervention outside of myself, how am I addressing the strife and suffering  right here?

Pa Nung also invites us to examine our minds as we read the text from Isaiah. In this vision humanity can only beat our swords into mattocks and study war no more when God intervenes. Without God’s help, how can we do this? Before we can beat actual swords into mattocks, we need to beat the constant war-like thoughts of our minds into the tools of gardeners of the soul and heart. To finally rid ourselves of the mind-habits of studying war will take deep meditation and self-reflection.  Returning to Advent: today is the first day of the new church year. How will I allow the prince of peace into my heart?

Three questions for today:
1.    What is the teaching of Isaiah?
2.    “Beat your swords into mattochs” – what does this mean?
3.    “Nor ever again be trained for war” – what does this mean?

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