Comfort To My People

Second Sunday of Advent (B)

“Comfort, give comfort to my people”, says your God. – Isaiah 40:1

You are seven years old, riding your bike on a  warm summer’s day. Your front tire hits a patch of sand and loses traction. You fall, skinning your right elbow and knee. The new wounds sting, but the sensation of falling is more frightening to you than the wounds. You seek your mother. If she’s available, you go to her immediately. If not, you tell her as soon as possible. She may give you some unsolicited advice about being careful on your bike – advice that is painfully obvious to you now. Chances are that she will also clean your scrapes, put ointment and bandages on them, give you a hug or a kiss, and reassure you that all is well. You may head out again, your scrapes still stinging. But you are no longer overwhelmed. Your mother consoled you and told you that it will be okay – and you believe her. You may even show off your new scars to your friends, as though you were a Purple Heart soldier with battle scars. Your mother’s comfort has made all the difference.

Let’s change our scenario a bit.

You are seven years old. Your mother has told you to do something you don’t want to do right then, or that you can’t do something you want to do right them. You go off, muttering, angry, stomping your feet. In your anger, you fail to see something. You trip, fall, and skin your right elbow and knee. Now, what do you do? You want some comfort and consolation, but that means returning to the parent that you have been angry with.

You have a few options.

You could just sit there alone, stewing about how unfair it all is, and tell yourself that you won’t go back to your mother, as though not going back would be revenge for what has happened to you. Yet, you are still scared and in pain. You will feel increasingly isolated and depressed.

You could go back to your mother, but blame someone or something else. Your sister pushed you. The cat tripped you. That’s why you fell. Maybe your mother will believe you, or simply choose to not challenge you on that. You might leave that scenario feeling some fleeting satisfaction in that you fooled your mother. You might try pulling that one again in a similar situation. But you will know that you haven’t been honest. You will find that one lie breeds another, and remains a kind of wall, dividing you from even your mother.

You could go back to your mother, and do the harder thing: admit that you were mad, that your anger blinded you, and therefore you tripped and hurt yourself. Your mother might see this as a teachable moment and offer you some unsolicited advice. Chances are, she will also offer you not only treatment for your physical wounds, but healing for those inner scars caused by your anger and resentment. You might feel a brief rush of shame over your anger, but you also have received grace, love, and an offer to start again. This choice, though it feels harder at first, will leave you feeling more comforted and healed afterwards.

You are no longer seven years old. We have returned to 2017. No matter how much older we may be, we still find ourselves in need of both of the types of comfort I just described.

As adults, we still find ourselves falling off our bikes at times. Life will throw at us situations that feel frightening and overwhelming at first, no matter how calm or cool we may appear on the outside or how solid or mature or capable we may be. We may not run to our mothers like we did at age seven, but we all have family and friends we can turn to for comfort, advice and encouragement in such times. Pride may make us hesitate to seek that comfort sometimes, but this isn’t too hard to overcome. Everyone faces such moments. We also seek comfort and consolation from our faith community, and ultimately, from God when such moments come. We find encouragement from the Scriptures, homilies, and prayers that we offer for one another. We find encouragement from the lives of people we know who are facing great challenges, as well as saints and others in the past who also faced trials. Surrounded by a cloud of witnesses that urges us on, we feel supported and comforted.

Things get a little more interesting, shall we say, when the comfort we need is of the second type – because of a wound that is self-inflicted due to anger, pride, or some other rash emotion. A wound that we may have also inflicted on others due to those same rash emotions. We want the comfort, but our pride or hurt or envy stands in the way. We want the reconciliation, but not at the price of acknowledging responsibility or changing anything in our lives.

Like the child in that second scenario above, we have a few choices.

We can withdraw and stew over it all, muttering to ourselves how unfair life is and how no one could possibly understand all that we have to endure. Our anger and pride are internalized, and we begin to feel depressed and more anxious than ever. The more we withdraw into this state, the harder it is to reach out and be open to the comfort we need.

We can blame someone or something else. Since everyone has some kind of fault or failing, that isn’t hard to do. “If my spouse wasn’t so…”; “If my boss treated me with respect, I wouldn’t…”; “If my relatives were different in some way…”; and so on. This approach only mushrooms, of course. We find that other people are also looking for someone else to blame for their problems and failures. Scapegoating begins here. Find a person or group that is somehow different, or unconventional, or annoying in some way, and blame that person or group. Even if we are caught in our wrongs, we don’t really apologize. We say something like “I’m sorry you feel hurt”, but never take any responsibility for it. Or we blame someone else, or some circumstance that left us with no choice.  Or, we choose to stand pat, and make the other change: “If you really loved me, you would…” – while we offer no real love at all. In doing so, we imitate many we see around us these days.

Or, we can choose what feels like the harder thing at first, but what will open us to true comfort and consolation in the end: we can acknowledge our fault, take responsibility, and ask for forgiveness. The other person may or may not respond in kind. However, when we turn to God in this way, God always responds in kind. “A broken, humbled heart, O God, you will not spurn”, the psalmist reminds us. We admit that our own sins have broken our hearts, and worse still, broken the hearts of others whom we have hurt in some way by our sins. Even worse, by our sins, we have broken faith with God. It is the humbled heart that can see this, acknowledge it, and then seek forgiveness and true consolation.

Now humility is not groveling. Far from it. It is honesty – no more, no less. It is acknowledging what truly is. Humility seeks no excuses or scapegoats. It gives no pseudo-apologies. It does not lash out at others’ real or supposed wrongs as a justification for one’s own. Nor does it take on responsibility for things beyond it. It simply stops and says, “I have sinned. Please forgive me.”

This is the only way to receive this kind of comfort – the kind of comfort that the Lord offers us through Isaiah in the first reading. It is the comfort of Advent; a comfort we cannot receive without being open to the message of John the Baptist.

John the Baptist may not, at first glance, look like a comforting figure. We do not normally include him in our Nativity sets. Yet, we cannot receive the promise of Christmas – the promise of a deep comfort and consolation – without hearing John. John has a difficult job. He is the external voice of our own consciences. We don’t always like to hear our consciences challenge us when we have failed in some way. Nevertheless, we can choose to admit the truth. John forces us to make a choice. Truth or self-deception? Humility or pride? Responsibility or scapegoating? It is not John who condemns us if we choose our pride and sin. He merely voices our own conscience which, inspired by the Holy Spirit, points out our need for forgiveness and repentance.  Either we will hear John, and say to God, “Your will be done”; or, we will reject John, and God will say to us, “Your will be done”.

The Good News that Isaiah and John the Baptist speak of begins with a diagnosis – a diagnosis that might sound like bad news at first: we are sinners. We cannot save ourselves. We have, by our own choice, sinned against ourselves, others, and God. The first step is to accept the diagnosis! Otherwise, Advent and Christmas come in vain. Only when we acknowledge the “disease” that we all have and our responsibility for it are we aware of our need for a comfort, a consolation, a healing the we cannot give ourselves. A healing that is totally beyond our power to attain. Then we are ready to hear the Good News of Advent, which is the Gospel of Jesus Christ. God is coming. He comes to meet us in our sinfulness and to offer us healing and reconciliation. He offers us the grace to become like him. He even calls us his friends.  He offers us a consolation deeper and more powerful than even our mothers could at their most loving moments. He waits for us to accept the offer.  When we refuse, we isolate ourselves and stew in a corner of our own making. But, when we accept, the Lord pours such gifts into our hearts that all we can do is shed tears of joy for something that is far, far beyond anything we could have merited or expected.  The Lord makes that offer once again, here and now. The great cloud of witnesses encourages us to say yes. All those who truly love us encourage us to say yes.  Comfort is offered to us. Our response? “Behold the servant of the Lord. Let it be done to me according to your word”.