When we find ourselves in darkness, spiritual and emotional darkness, what do we do? How do we respond? Some of us respond with fatalistic resignation, others of us with anger, and some in a despair that has led them into alcoholism or medicine-cabinet drug addiction. Our psyches and souls can fill up with bitterness causing others to distance themselves from us, driving us into bitter isolation and feelings of abandonment.
Our national soul, our American spirit is presently being tested with the economic malaise that has infected us all. We live in a time of economic gloom, an economic depression that has affected not only our pocket books but our national spirit as well. Our dysfunctional government is symptomatic of how sick we are. Where do we look for hope? In economic indicators or elsewhere? Where are the first lights of a dawning new day? To what horizon do we look? Has God abandoned us or is God bidding us to look beyond what presently imprisons us in darkness?
Last Sunday we considered the broad sweep of Advent. We reminded ourselves that Advent begins with us looking toward the end of the world. It is right that we should be anxious and concerned about the judgment of God on the Day of Judgment. But we should not be held in the grip of fear. Why? Because God’s judgment is that we are worth saving. God’s judgment comes to us with His grace and mercy… His grace and mercy given to us in His Son, Jesus Christ.
That theme continues for this Second Sunday of Advent. The first words in today’s first reading (Is 40:1-5, 9-11) come from the prophet Isaiah. God tells Isaiah to comfort His people. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,” He tells Isaiah, and proclaim to her that her time of trial is coming to an end. Every valley shall be filled in; every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain and the rough country made a broad valley. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed.” Isaiah was speaking God’s word to Israel, His people who had been driven from their homeland and who were living in captivity in Babylon. And Isaiah speaks to us as well, in our time.
Tenderly God speaks to those captive Israelites through His prophet Isaiah. “Comfort, give comfort to my people… Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” Tell them that their trails are about to end and that their guilt is expiated. In the desert God’s power will make things gentle for them. Valleys will be filled, mountains will be leveled, and rough ways will be smoothed. God will care for them like a shepherd to guide them and nourish them, gathering them in His arms and speaking tenderly to them. God cares for us also.
The Gospel account (Mk 1:1-8) picks up on that scene. We need to note, however, that all this will all not come about unless we do our part, unless we repent, change our ways, and prepare to meet God on His terms, not ours. The comfortable will be afflicted and the afflicted will be comforted. The way back home to God is not automatic… it not simply handed to us on a silver platter. The situation of the Israelites differs from the situation in which we presently find ourselves. As challenging as theirs was, ours is more challenging.
To provide for us in our challenge God sent us His only Son to work with us, not simply for us. We often find ourselves praying to God to do things for us without at the same time offering God what we will do for Him. Therein in found our challenge. What DO we actually do for Him? How do we work with Him?
If we think God has afflicted us with various sufferings, ought we not reflect on the reality that we afflicted His Son, grievously afflicted Him? Once having reflected on that, what have we done to comfort Him with repentant hearts, with hearts opened with love so that His love can enter our hearts?
When we have broken away from those who love us, when we have alienated ourselves like the Prodigal Son was alienated from his father and his home, what path do we take to return to them? When we have hurt those who we love, how do we get back into their hearts? For those, however, who live apart from God’s love the path is difficult, daunting, and perhaps not possible to find. For those who live in God’s favor, the valleys will be filled, the mountains leveled, the rough ways will be made smooth, and the trip back will be gentle.
Life is filled with afflictions, many of them severe. The Evil One will use them to drive our hearts further away from God. The tools of the devil are doubt, disillusionment, discouragement, depression, defeat, despair, and spiritual death. Living under those clouds can imprison our souls in the devil’s captivity.
God has spoken His Word to us, His Word made flesh. Ever present, God speaks to us in the words of the prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated…” Our Church, standing now in the shoes of John the Baptist, cries out: In the desert prepare the way of the Lord! Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley… Here is your God! He comes with power the Lord God who rules by his strong arm; here is His reward. Like a shepherd He feeds His flock; in His arms He gathers His lambs, carrying them next to His heart, leading them with care.
All the more marvelous, then, is the fact that God’s only Son entered into our humanity. He became fully and truly human in order to share in our darkness, to share in our moments of depression and despair. This is so in order that we, in our darkest moments and in our times of disillusionment and depression, might find there His voice and hear His call to us: “Behold, I am with you. Fear not; be not afraid; have courage. Walk in my way, in my truth, and in my life and I will be there with you as your gentle shepherd, holding you in my arms next to my heart, all the while bringing you home, back to the home in which you belong.”
Jesus Christ knows suffering. He has not remained above and apart from us, He Himself has entered into our suffering and shared in it. His mother, too, knows suffering. She has shared in it fully and in our suffering loves us with a mother’s love. Jesus Christ and His mother offer us power and strength so that we need not remain passive victims. They give us both strength and hope. Their message is empowering. They give us a power this world knows not of. We are not trapped in hopelessness and powerlessness. God’s tender loving care is there for us if only we turn from this world’s ways and enter into their way, the only way that leads to victory over all that this world can throw at us.
Like a shepherd God leads us, feeds us, and strengthens us. In His arms he gathers us, carrying us close to His heart and leading us home to our heavenly home, a journey that is both challenging and comforting.