“Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term …” The opening words to the reading from Isaiah, set the tone for all of today’s readings. They acknowledge that there is pain in the world and the path of our lives can be filled with obstacles, but they also promise that the hardships and the suffering will not last. God will gather us into his arms where we will be safe and cared for.
Day after day in the hospital, I meet people who are wrestling with spiritual pain, the pain of wondering “why me?” “why this?” “why now?” “what is the point?” There is the woman whose once brilliant husband no longer knows how to do even the little things, like guide a spoon to his mouth or brush his teeth, but still knows that he wants to go home. Each time he asks about going home, she feels as if a huge chasm has opened in front of her. She doesn’t even know what to hope for. There is the man in his twenties who was beginning graduate school when he started to see and hear things that no one else could see or hear. He had dreams of winning a Nobel Prize and now people are telling him that he needs to live in a special care home and have someone else manage his finances. His intellectual insights and his delusions get tangled together sometimes, so now most people don’t bother listening to him. When he looks to his future, he sees nothing but pointless drudgery, a never-ending trudge up a mountain that has no top and no scenic views. There is the single mother who is dying and who is trying to make sure that she leaves messages for her children for all of the important life events that may be before them. Every day she tries to push through pain and fatigue to go just a little further in life and help her children just a little bit more. The list goes on and on.
Many people say that they dislike the “Christmas season” because each of these things, which are so difficult anyway, become even harder when there is a societal expectation of joy and celebration. Today’s readings are a reminder that the season of preparation for Christmas, the Advent season, is not meant to be a season of perfection and tranquillity, but rather a season in which we acknowledge that our lives are far from perfect and often anything but tranquil, but nonetheless God is with us. Advent is a season for holding on despite the suffering because we know that something better will come. The chasms on our path will be filled in, the mountains levelled and the obstacles removed; something wonderful is coming even though every day of waiting can seem like a thousand years. Holding on to the promise of blessing is not easy, but if we encourage and support one another, we can experience peace and hope even in the wilderness. Sometimes we are tempted to despair because we cannot imagine how things could ever be good again. It is true, only God can see a good ending to the stories I just told. But then again, only God could see how the world could be changed from a stable behind an overcrowded inn.