What comforts you?

Is it news of a friend’s recovery from a severe illness? Is it the sound of a voice of someone you care about? Is it a morning filled with sunshine or the laughter of children in a park? Is it a time of calm prayer?

Comfort is at the heart of Isaiah’s reading (40:1-11) for the second Sunday of Advent. In it God issues a command to Comfort, O comfort my people.

The comforting news is that Israel’s penalty is paid, ….. The community of Israel has been forgiven.

Guilt had burdened the people. But now the sentence for the crime has been served and the people are to be freed. The comfort is that reconciliation with God has been achieved. He will open the doors of the Babylonian prison and the captives will be set free. Instead of anger, God will meet his people with an embrace.

The next passage surprises but also contains profound psychological insights. An anonymous voice, perhaps that of an angel, cries out prepare the way of the Lord. In the wilderness make straight a highway for our God …. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain.

The instruction to make straight a highway in the wilderness, fill the valleys and level the mountains feels disconnected from the opening words to comfort my people. It sounds like a non sequitur. How does an instruction on ‘civil engineering’ relate to comforting? Surely comforting God’s people does not involve digging and hauling actual rocks.

The answer is that comfort means more than ease. As this commentary’s opening question suggests it can mean a renewal of the spirit and a joy in relationship. This metaphor of filling the valleys and leveling the mountains addresses this refreshment of the soul.

Filling valleys and leveling mountains make a journey easier and faster. It enables the flow of riches. It opens up possibilities.

Preparing the way of the Lord contains a profound insight. It links our renewal of spirit to our effort to make God welcome in our hearts. The ‘civil engineering’ effort has to take place internally.

Removing the obstacles that prevent God from entering our lives is comforting. Each of us knows of personal habits that obstruct our relationship with God. Each of us knows of something we could and should do differently to live more fully in God’s presence. And we also know a certain kind of satisfaction that comes from addressing these obstacles in our lives. This is what Isaiah is saying when he links comfort with preparing the way of the Lord.    

Another dimension of comfort arises from reconciling with someone we have cared about. It provides peace. Nevertheless reconciliation takes effort. It may involve swallowing pride and saying “I’m sorry”. It does not come easily. The effort is the equivalent of filling valleys and leveling a mountain.

In 540 BCE, when Isaiah was writing, filling valleys and making a path straight meant digging stones and roots by hand and carrying them on animal-drawn carts or on shoulders. The effort would have seemed endless and the progress slow. Yet they understood their objective in fixing the road and they understood its metaphoric meaning.

Making straight the way of the Lord is a lifelong commitment that takes effort and sometimes feels like it has little to show by way of results.

Yet Isaiah’s insight is that the effort we honestly expend to welcome God into our lives comforts us. Out conscience tells us that this is the right thing to do.

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As an Advent reading, the church uses Isaiah 40:1-11 as both a historical reminder and as a scriptural urging for us to get ready to liturgically celebrate Christmas in a renewed spirit.

The reading also suggests that Advent can be a perpetual state of mind. By it we are reminded to constantly tune our lives to God and prepare a way to welcome him.

The payoff is comfort…in the sense that Isaiah proclaims.

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  • What experience do you have of being comforted by effort: practicing a musical instrument, exercising to run faster, working in a garden? Do you find comfort in ‘leaning in’ to the anticipated result.
  • When you look at your life you may be able to spot ‘rocks in the road’ that cause you to swerve from your objectives. But are there valleys, mountains… big things in your life that need structural change?
  • Advent is both a liturgical time as well as a way of life. As such, we draw comfort from orienting our lives to God in the way we live our lives. What change will you make in Advent that you can carry forward…to comfort you and prepare the way of the Lord in your life?

Peace

Michael