Second Sunday of Advent
December 6, 2020
In the past eight months, many of us have encountered difficulty that we never imagined we would confront. Life in the midst of a pandemic has brought severe illness and death to some, loss of work and financial instability to others, isolation and loneliness to many, and worry and anxiety in general. In this Advent season, then, the words of Isaiah in the first reading seem to speak directly to us: “Comfort, give comfort to my people” (Is. 40:1). We can easily join in with the petition of the psalm response: “Lord, let us see your kindness, and grant us your salvation” (Ps. 85:8).
These readings remind us of a larger perspective beyond our immediate moment of distress. We are called to perseverance in difficulty and persistence in prayer, including the prayers of lament, complaint, and petition. Isaiah tells us that “a voice cries out…prepare the way of the Lord!” (Is. 40:9). Yet when we hear that voice in the gospel passage from Mark, which quotes Isaiah, we see that it is John the Baptist, and the call is to repentance.
How do we find comfort in repentance? How does such a call bring us to that peace and calm for which we long? In part, we must recognize – as we surely have in the last eight months – that we cannot simply reject difficulties or avoid calamity. We can, however, react with bitterness and resentment, fueling discord in our own unhappiness, or we can choose to embrace the difficulty, offer the suffering, and once more fight against our own selfishness. Many times our actual response is a mixture of both reactions. While we want to be the kind of people who accept hardship theoretically, we find the practicality of doing such to be overwhelming and stressful.
Fortunately, this is another instance where our loving God has “gamed the system in our favor” to paraphrase biblical scholar Gary Anderson. If we have embraced the recent challenges in a spirit of willing submission, then we have heard John’s call to repentance. If, however, we have failed at embracing difficulty and instead complained bitterly, we have an opportunity, namely, to let this increase our humility and help us to recognize our dependence upon God.
In this penitential and preparatory season of Advent in 2020, we certainly know what it is to wait. We are waiting for a vaccine. We are waiting for our lives to regain a sense of normalcy. But more profoundly, we must try to wait actively and confidently in a spirit of hope – not just for a vaccine and a reprieve from current difficulties. Rather, we wait for the new heavens and the new earth (2 Pt. 3:13). We wait to commemorate the birth that changed the world, and we also wait for the second coming that will end the world.
Our celebrations of Christmas may look different this year, without crowded churches and large family gatherings. Perhaps we feel we have less to anticipate, less to celebrate. In times of difficulty such as these, we would rather hear about comfort than repentance. And yet, we may find comfort in the call to repentance. We have seen growing divisiveness and polarization in our society in response to a pandemic. Perhaps we have been confronted also with our own weakness and selfishness in living in this sudden pandemic world that we wouldn’t have chosen. The invitation to repentance is thus a welcome one, acknowledging the brokenness that we witness and affirming that God wants for us something that is better.
And what comfort there is in realizing that we don’t have to save ourselves! We are called to repentance, but we are not ultimately responsible for our own salvation, dependent upon our own sheer will to make up for our personal sins and those of all mankind. Despite the brokenness of the world and our own personal failings, we will once again celebrate the birth of Jesus and the realization that God is always for us. And this is real comfort.