Words of comfort are often more difficult to hear with an open and sincere heart than are words of impending disaster. We accept consolation when things are bad, and we hope that they will somehow get better, even when at times it seems to be impossible. But when we hear words of pending disaster when the situation of the moment seems to be going pretty well, we are more disposed to prepare for the encroaching danger than we are to accept consolation.
As we approached the Advent season, and even last week on the First Sunday of Advent, we have been hearing of the need for watchfulness and preparation in the face of the coming Day of the Lord. As we come into this Second Sunday of Advent, the focus of the Readings shifts to a hope-filled consolation.
In context, it was the situation of the prophet and the people of God in history at the time that led Isaiah to write the prophecy we hear in the First Reading, which tells of a very dreadful time. This prophecy is earlier than the First Reading for the First Sunday of Advent, so there is more a sense of impending destruction instead of the destruction having already occurred.
The Babylonians are bearing down on the city. The Jewish way of life and their sense of themselves as a nation, and as the people of God, are threatened. Eventually some will abandon their ways and assimilate into the Babylonian culture. There will remain, however a faithful remnant who yet in their suffering hear the call of the prophet.
A Jerusalem destroyed, is not abandoned. A people, though in exile, are not forsaken. They will return to rebuild this city, the city which God has chosen as the mountain where God is worshiped will once again flourish with life, and people from all corners of the earth will find consolation there.
In order to make this most difficult overland journey through deserts back from Babylon to Jerusalem over hills and valleys easier the Lord exclaims: “make a highway in the desert, fill in the valleys and level the mountains.” While the path from the exile will be fraught with danger, the return will be made easy as God is calling the people back and revealing his presence to them there. The long suffering of the people will be at an end.
The Gospel passage comes through the proclamation of John the Baptizer. With a slight shift in the wording of the Hebrew text, Mark understands the Baptizer as, “the voice crying in the wilderness make ready the way of the Lord.”
This movement from exile to city to desert is a significant and deeply symbolic one. In a sense it is bringing covenant full circle. What began in the wilderness with Moses then moved to the settlement in the Promised Land. Now an exile looms, one that the people fear bodes the very end of everything. But Isaiah proclaims that they shall again move through the wilderness and return to the Promised Land.
As Israel and Jerusalem, we hear the compassionate summons from God who calls us in the midst of our wilderness to joyfully prepare ourselves for the coming of the Lord anew in our hearts through the forgiveness of our sins. In this way we are made ready to enter the City of God and the heavenly Jerusalem, beginning the cycle yet again.
Father Garry Koch is pastor of St. Benedict Parish, Holmdel.