23 Dec 2018

“I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds.”

So J. Robert Oppenheimer, ‘father of the atomic bomb’, famously said upon seeing the first detonation of his bomb and the destructive power he had unleashed.[i] The quote comes from an ancient Sanskrit text, the Baghavad Gita, in which the deity Vishnu takes on a terrifying appearance and speaks the line Oppenheimer made so famous.

Oppenheimer’s quotation highlights in a powerful way the violence of the ‘old order’, the world of an unsaved humanity. The Prophet Micah speaks this morning for that world in which people felt abandoned, threatened, like sheep without a shepherd (Mic 5:1-4). The Epistle to the Hebrews describes a world of endless sacrifices and oblations to appease violent gods in hope of some security (Heb 10:5-10). Without grace, human beings often turn upon others and do them violence whether physical or mental. The French anthropologist René Girard called this tendency ‘scapegoating’, the effort to curtail violence by channelling it, focusing it on one person or animal set apart from the rest.[ii] How often, even in our own day, do the media, society, politics or the justice system, experience tension with or anger towards some institution or situation and then target some quite possibly innocent individual to appease this sentiment, at least for the time being.

But in Christ we have something very different. He responds to that common sense of abandonment by offering Himself as our lifeguard (Mic 5:1-4). He brings an end to the endless sacrifices by making Himself the all-sufficing, once-and-for-all offering (Heb 10:5-10). He puts an end to the endless cycle of recrimination and scapegoating. “He himself will be peace,” Micah says. Not the thunder and lightning of the weather gods of old: He is more a gentle breeze. Not the warring generals of ancient cults: more a gentle shepherd. “Here I am,” Jesus says today, as He is coming into the world. Here I am, not fighting but loving, not resisting but obeying. I come not as destroyer but as redeemer, healer, restorer.

“I am become Death, Destroyer of Worlds”, say Vishnu and Oppenheimer. “I am become Life, creator and recreator of worlds,” says Jesus. “I am the Way, the Truth, and the LifeI am the Resurrection and the Life… I am come that you might have life, life to the full (Jn 10:10; 11:25; 14:6).

He Himself will be peace. When modernity gets tired of violent conflict, its seeks a temporary ceasefire and a longer-term negotiated truce. This commonly involves international or governmental organisations, use of military or police forces, as well as teams of diplomats and negotiators. In the ancient world, when the authorities in Rome got tired of conflict, they imposed the Pax Romana with brutal force and symbols of Roman power to awe people into compliance.

How different was the Christmas coming of the Prince of Peace! A baby, born to a humble family, wrapped in swaddling clothes, and laid in a manger: this was a very strange starting place from which to bring peace to the most troublesome province of the Roman empire or to the human race marked by violence, recrimination and scapegoating since the days of Abel and Cain.

Yet if there were no horn blasts from the Roman army or the helicopter whirls from the blue berets, there were signs this unpromising birth would be special. Isaiah prophesied the child would be a “wonder counsellor and prince of peace” (Isa 9:6). Zechariah sang that He would “give light to those in darkness and guide them into the ways of peace” (Lk 1:79). Angels carolled that He was ‘Glory to God in heaven’ and ‘Peace to men on earth’ (Lk 2:14). And this morning we saw Elizabeth greet Him as Lord – by calling Mary ‘Mother of my Lord’ – and greet Him also as most blessed fruit of the womb. Even more dramatically, the unborn John the Baptist leaps for joy in Elizabeth’s womb. As St. John Chrysostom put it: “The Lord is present, so John cannot contain himself or wait for nature to run its course; John wants to break out of the prison of his mother’s womb and witness to the fact that the Saviour is coming.”[iii]

The department stores say there are only two shopping days till Christmas. But John the Baptist, ‘alarm clock of the world’, leaps in his mother’s womb so she cries out, he leaps for joy so she shouts with joy. John says to us all this morning: “Advent is almost over; the Messiah is imminent; be ready to receive Him”.

“I am coming into the world,” He says. No more fear, anger, retaliation. No more bloody violence or bloody sacrifices. No more scapegoating. I am become Life, and I say to you, again and again, “Peace be with you” (Lk 7:50; 8:48; 24:36; cf. Jn 14:27; 16:33; 20:21,26).

We respond by assenting to peace rather than violence every time the Bishop says “Peace be with you” on Christ’s behalf. We respond not just by words, but by choosing life over death in all our actions. We respond by acting against abortion, assault, euthanasia, wars of aggression, domestic violence, capital punishment and the rest. We respond by acting for reconciliation, care, non-violence, peace. We respond by rooting out grudges, the desire for retaliation, the fantasies of recrimination from our own hearts and cultivating the character of peacemakers.

“Peace be with you” says an angel to a young woman (Lk 1:28) and on behalf of all humanity Mary says Yes, Fiat, Let it be, to the coming of ‘Peace on Earth’. On behalf of all humanity Elizabeth rejoices today in this same Prince of Peace: How honoured am I, to receive the Mother – and the Lord. On behalf of all humanity, the foetal John leaps into kneeling position to adore the One who will brings “a peace the world cannot give” (Jn 14:27).

“Now I am become Life and Peace,” says the Lord, “and I am coming into the world.” Are you ready?



To everyone present this morning for the Solemn Mass for the Fourth Sunday of Advent, a very warm welcome to St Mary’s Basilica. Concelebrating with me this morning are Fr. Dan Carr from the Diocese of Greensburg, Pennsylvania, Fr. Stephen Logue from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania, and Fr. Frank Furman from Springfield, Massachusetts, all students in Rome.

As Christmas is only two days away, today is a final wake-up call for us all!

To prepare ourselves to receive the Christ-child into the crib of our hearts, let us repent of our sins.


[i] Cf. James Temperton, “‘Now I am become Death, the destroyer of worlds’: the story of Oppenheimer’s infamous quote”, WiredUK, 9 August 2017, https://www.wired.co.uk/article/manhattan-project-robert-oppenheimer; “L. Robert Oppenheimer, Atom Bomb Pioneer, Dies”, New York Times, 19 February 1967.

[ii] Cf. Cf. René Girard, The Scapegoat (John Hopkins University Press, 1986)

[iii] St. John Chrysostom, Sermon recorded by Metaphrastrus