“’Comfort, O comfort my people,’ says your God.” – Isaiah 40:1 (NRSV)
Recently, I was asked if I might step in and lead a brief memorial service for a young couple in our community whose infant son had unexpectedly died at birth. Given that this family was quite literally aching with grief and had no strong church affiliation, I was glad to be able to offer them some measure of pastoral support; though I have to confess that these kinds of services are perhaps the most difficult of all to prepare and to lead. After all, how does one even begin to console that which is inconsolable; what words of healing and hope can possibly be spoken in a few brief moments that won’t end up ringing hollow in the midst of such deep sadness?
And yet, there is a strong need for us to come together in moments such as these; a yearning, as the liturgy in our United Church of Christ Book of Worship expresses it, to “pour out our grief, release our anger, face our emptiness, and know that God cares.” This truth was brought home to me in profound fashion as I arrived at the funeral home that evening; for what was expected to be a relatively small gathering of extended family members and a few close friends had become a huge outpouring of love and support for the bereaved parents. There was a long line of people winding out the door of the very crowded funeral chapel, each one awaiting an opportunity to express their condolences; so many, in fact, that the memorial service itself had to be delayed by nearly a half an hour. And when finally the time came for me to begin, I was immediately struck by how swiftly the room had fallen silent, and how strongly the eyes of all those present were now looking to me to offer some assurance of comfort in the midst of this great loss and, indeed, “the frailty of our own existence on earth;” the kind of comfort that ultimately is not mine, nor the world’s, to give, but which is as real and as true as God’s own word of unending hope.
And it was in that fleeting moment that I was reminded of what this season of Advent is all about.
Each year during these weeks of December, we remember how the people of God, dwelling in a time of exile, despair and seeming hopelessness, nonetheless awaited with great anticipation the promised coming of the Messiah, who is the Christ; and likewise, how you and I are also to be waiting, watching and perhaps above all, preparing for that time when Christ shall return, bringing with him the fulfillment of God’s Kingdom on earth. We sing songs of hope and joy; we pray for peace and renew ourselves to the work of love; and we light candles symbolizing all of these things and more, so that we might be reminded of God’s light forever piercing the darkness even as the tragic events in places like Paris and San Bernardino make us painfully aware of the many ways that darkness seeks to prevail in this world. Truly, as the song (and Longfellow’s poetry) so poignantly puts it, “for hate is strong and mocks the song of peace on earth, goodwill to men,” and we are left yearning for that which will give us true comfort.
And yet, even now, even in the wake of such rampant violence and our own human propensity to respond with anger and retribution, God is there for us with a word of hope; “speaking tenderly” to us with the sure and certain promise of a peace that the world can neither give nor take away, made real to us in the gift of a child who was born – in a manger (!) – to be our Savior, our Teacher, our Friend.. and our Example… as persons and as a people.
Perhaps my favorite quote from the works of Frederick Beuchner comes from an essay in which he writes:
“In the silence of a midwinter dusk there is far off in the deeps of it somewhere a sound so faint that for all you can tell it may be only the sound of the silence itself. You hold your breath to listen… The extraordinary thing that is about to happen is matched only by the extraordinary moment just before it happens. Advent is the name of that moment.” – from “Whistling in the Dark: An ABC Theologized” by Frederick Beuchner
I like to think that that even amidst the inevitable noise and chaos that always seems to follow the ever-shifting and often earth-shaking events of this present age, there will always be those who will be looking past the darkness and toward the growing light dawn; standing on tiptoes, as it were, so that they might be able to peek just past the next horizon to see what amazing thing God will be doing in the world. Peace on Earth and goodwill amongst all people? An end to poverty, hunger and injustice? Love truly made manifest from person to person, nation to nation? “God and sinners reconciled?” It’s all there… all given to us in the sure and certain promises of a mighty and infinitely loving God, and it’s all just about to happen… just wait for it, and be ready when it does!
Indeed, my prayer in this particular season and always is that we will find comfort in what, by God’s grace, is “just about to happen;” and that each one of us will be actively awaiting that advent with prayerful anticipation, with hearts devoted to making it real in the world and in our lives until that moment comes in its fullness.
O Come, o come… Emmanuel.
c. 2015 Rev. Michael W. Lowry