Second Sunday in Advent
Isaiah 40:1-11; Psalm 85:1-2, 8-13
2 Peter 3:8-15a; Mark 1:1-8
I arrived in Los Angeles during a 10-year drought. After my first year there, I moved into a one-room cottage behind an apartment building which boasted a treasure: it had its own garden. Bare, brown earth. I went out and bought a hundred tiny seedlings, but when I went into the yard to plant them, I could not dig the earth. After so long a time without water, it was hard as bone. In desperation, I ran the hose, letting the water spill onto the dry ground. It took all night, but in the morning, I could dig an inch deep. I rose, covered in mud, and watched those tiny plants grow.
That January, it began to rain. It rained every day from New Year’s Day to Valentine’s. The rain pooled on ground too dry to receive it, formed rushing rivers at the edges of streets. It caused mudslides and minor floods. Then, slowly, the ground softened. The cracked earth healed. A soft green fuzz appeared on the hills. The land began to breathe again. William Butler Yeats wrote, “Too long a time of sorrow can make a stone of the heart.” But, sometimes, that stony heart can learn to beat again.
That work of learning to live — of learning tenderness again — is the grace offered in today’s readings. Comfort ye, O comfort ye, my people, says your God. We hear that differently now, after a time in which our whole nation — indeed, the whole world! — has been in need of comfort. More like the first listeners, perhaps. In the dark days of the Hebrew exile in Babylon, a voice arose with a message of hope. After many years displaced from the life they loved, separated from the people they loved, disoriented by new ways and unfamiliar rules, the Lord spoke words of a new beginning. It is the voice of a lover calling after long absence, of a healer coming to the bedchamber where a person struggles to breathe, of the first light of dawn coloring the horizon after a long night. Not, quite, full restoration, but word that help is on the way.
But what is the comfort of God?
Not, I think, what we want it to be. So often, we long for God to be a magician, someone who will wave a magic wand and make everything better. The Perfect Parent in the Sky. The one who will heal the ecosphere, raise the widow’s son from death, make this long time of suffering come to an end — or, even better, make it not to have been at all. We forget that the Perfect Parent does not work so that the child may remain an infant. The parent helps the child to grow.
And so God offers Presence, not magic. Accompaniment, not a quick fix. Hope, even in the darkness, until we can learn to hold a light for one another. The prophet Isaiah points to the condition we must fulfill: “All flesh shall see it together” — not rich or poor, not black or brown or white, not mask-wearers or anti-maskers, gay or straight — all of us together. We must choose to hang together, or we will hang separately. But the vision of God can be seen already by eyes which are willing to see.
This long, strange time has been a tutor in vision. We who are privileged to live in a rich country in the 21st century have been able, until now, to be separated from the true condition of our lives: our essential fragility. At most, it comes to us in fragments, then is drowned out by the rush of our commitments. A few years ago, I came home from church on Ash Wednesday, after leading three services, to find that my dogs had also been engaging in a ritual of sorts: only, at home, it had been Dirt Wednesday, the day when you remove several cups of potting soil from your owner’s potted plants and scatter it all over the sofa, the rug, the floor… I howled, of course, but even as I rushed to get the vacuum cleaner, one thing was clear in my mind: This must have been great fun at the time. And when I went to scold my dogs, I could not. After a day of standing in front of faces young and old, saying over and over again, Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return, all I knew was that I was glad I had those rascals to love. That one day, those dogs would no longer be with me, and even this transgression would be a treasured memory. The grass withers, the flower fades. Our mortality is meant to teach us kindness. In the words of Ram Dass, “we’re all just walking each other home.”
The grass withers, the flower fades — but the glory of the Lord endures for ever. Isaiah’s words set the fragility of our life in the context of the strength of God. Often, it feels the other way around — as if God, who cannot be seen or touched, is much less substantial than the world around us. But the truth is that the eternal things endure, while the incarnate ones pass away. C.S. Lewis dramatized this in his book The Great Divorce, in which souls newly arrived in heaven must become substantial enough to endure being there. At the start, even the blades of grass under their feet pierce their flesh. It is only as the souls grow in love that they are able to be at home there, to go further up and farther in.
What the prophet promises, of course, is something better: A new heaven and a new earth, where righteousness is at home. (2 Peter 3:13) Think about that! A world ordered in such a way that it is possible — even simple — to be the people we know we were made to be. A world of mercy and truth, righteousness and peace. Where heaven and earth are mirrors of one another, because both have been formed in love. (Ps 84:14) Imagine living in a world in which is it safe to walk down any street at any hour. Imagine a world in which no child is ever harmed, no woman ever violated. Imagine a world in which workers are treated with dignity, in which skin color is just a color, in which the differently abled can offer their gifts and know they will be received.
That is the good news St. Mark proclaims today. The Bible begins with the word Bereshit, “in the beginning”: “In the beginning, God made the heavens and the earth” (Gen 1:1). Today, with the first words of the earliest Gospel, we have a new creation redeeming and healing the old.
Even its herald — the strange, smelly figure of John the Baptist with his camel’s hair and dodgy diet — comes not as a scourge, but as a comforter. All those caustic denunciations about broods of vipers would have been a green branch of hope to those suffering oppression at the hands of the powerful, the indifferent, and the cruel. They fell as rain on the parched earth of hearts steeped in sorrow, held out hope of a day when the knees would be removed from every neck, when ordinary people would be able to stand upright and walk without fear and learn to breathe again.
But if this is to be a world in which righteousness is at home, what place will there be for us, who try and falter, and try and fail, who have too much, want too much, give too little, love too sparingly? How can we learn to fit into the world which Christ is bringing in?
If this seems daunting, do not fear: We are fed by the love of God, as sheep belonging to a tender shepherd, who gathers us in his arm and gently leads those that are with young. We have been given all this life as a time of preparation, of learning to walk in the ways of God. And this growth is not some terrifying ordeal (although sometimes it seems that way). Instead, God schools us as a parent teaching a toddler to walk, holding out his hands for us to grasp as we take one wavering step at a time, until we can stand, and, in time, even run. And so life comes at us, one day, one hour at a time, bringing us exactly what we need to grow.
There’s a story about a man named Philaret, who became Patriarch of Moscow in the 19th century. It was his practice to receive each person as if he were receiving Christ. One evening, after a long and difficult day, he looked up to see yet another poor old man walking down the steps to his door. Philaret whispered, “O Christ, is it you again?”
Yes: it is always Christ. Christ comes at us in every person and every event in our lives, and even in the times when it seems all we can do is to endure. Our work is to meet whatever comes with love: the love which accepts all people, and works for a world in which no one will be hurt or broken, in which all the stony ground becomes soft again, in which each of us can breathe. Not because we have healed the earth, but because God has already brought new life. By the mercies of Christ, the grace of God is already at work in this world — at work in us and around us.
That same Philaret left us a prayer which seems to me the quintessential prayer for Advent. It’s not about the birth of Christ or his Second Coming. It’s about welcoming him in every guise, on every path where he comes to meet us. It seems to me the perfect prayer for this extended time of waiting; it teaches us to wait in hope. I want to leave you with it today:
Lord, grant me to meet the coming day in peace. Help me in all things to rely upon Your holy will. In every hour of the day, reveal Your will to me. Bless my dealing with all who surround me. Teach me to treat all that comes to me throughout the day with peace of soul and with firm conviction that Your will governs all. In all my deeds and words, guide my thoughts and feelings. In unforeseen events, let me not forget that all are sent by You. Teach me to act firmly and wisely, without embittering and embarrassing others. Give me strength to bear the fatigue of the coming day with all that it shall bring. Direct my will, teach me to pray, pray Yourself in me. Amen.