By Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.
Isaiah 40:1-5, 9-11
Find Sunday’s reading here: http://usccb.org/bible/readings/121017.cfm
The winter breaks during my college years were often times I would go home not only to visit family and friends, but also to earn some extra money to pay for my education. My family owned and operated a small concrete company in northern Wisconsin, so there was never a shortage of work. During the winter months I would sometimes be painting trim inside my dad’s office building or splitting firewood outside, and I loved when it snowed! If it snowed during winter break, it meant I got to snowplow! I would wake up early in the morning, fill up my thermos with coffee, drive out to the shop, fire up the John Deere front-end loader, and then start snowplowing the local grocery store, school, hospital, factories, and private residences. I loved it! Everything was quiet, still, and peaceful. I, along with other highway workers, were busy working after the blizzards had gone through, cleaning up the snowy mess while everyone else would be sound asleep in their beds. We were making the highways and byways safe for people to travel and arrive safely at their desired destinations.
While many of us Wisconsinites cannot relate to the desert travel experience mentioned in Isaiah 40:3, I think many of us can relate to an experience of tough travel through the “frozen tundra” of a Wisconsin winter. It is no secret that we love our automobiles, and we have a fantastic roadway system for travel, but this can all come to a halt when a blizzard hits. A blizzard can turn our functional roadways into slick sheets of ice or an unnavigable blanket of snow, making our usual commutes risky. If it weren’t for the work of those individuals who go out with their snowplows, snowblowers, and shovels, we might never get out of our houses! While the Israelites have been forced into exile, now is the time to travel back home, to prepare a highway not only for the people to travel, but a highway prepared for God’s return to Jerusalem.
Advent is intended to be a transformative experience for us as Christians. With a new year beginning 31 days before our secular calendar, we make time to reflect upon what we have done and what we plan to do in becoming better witnesses of faith.
—Frater Jordan Neeck, O. Praem.
We can all imagine that desert travel is not easy. It is probably even harder than our travel through the snow, but God is at work in preparing a highway for the return of all to Jerusalem. This highway will be much like our interstate system. Isaiah proclaims, “Make straight in the wasteland a highway for our God! Every valley shall be filled in, every mountain and hill shall be made low; the rugged land shall be made a plain, the rough country, a broad valley. Then the glory of the LORD shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together; for the mouth of the LORD has spoken” (Is 40:3-5). But is this highway about us or is it more about God? Perhaps it is both.
On the one hand, there is a desire for us to return to God. In Isaiah, God instructs, “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her service is at an end, her guilt is expiated; indeed, she has received from the hand of the LORD double for all her sins” (40:1-2). The punishment Israel endured, first by the hand of the Babylonians and then by Cyrus of Persia, was due to the fact that they did not remain faithful to the covenant. Now that debt, Israel’s penance, has been repaid, it is time to come home. God’s corrective action placed Israel in a weakened state in which they had no choice but to return to God. So it is, after receiving their penance, time for God to comfort the people in their lowly state. Now is the time for the refugees to return as the redeemed people of God, to a restored Jerusalem.
On the other hand, from a perspective of an ancient Babylonian tradition, highways were seen as great triumphant processional paths for gods and kings to march into Babylonian cities. In this case, one could assume that God left Jerusalem when the city was sacked by Israel’s enemies, and now is the moment of God’s triumphant return. The people have repented and done penance for their sins (40:2), therefore, now is the appropriate time for God to return and restore God’s great nation. And everyone needs to see this moment in history.
After being metaphorically shackled into exile and literally beaten down by war, now is the time for the Israelites to, “Go up on to a high mountain, Zion, herald of glad tidings; cry out at the top of your voice, Jerusalem, herald of good news! Fear not to cry out and say to the cities of Judah: Here is your God” (40:9)! In the midst of destruction and feeling abandoned by God, the people are now prepared to shout for joy, for God has returned. They trust in the promise that God will restore the people and the nation to greatness. The prophet proclaims, “Here comes with power, the Lord GOD, who rules by his strong arm; here is his reward with him, his recompense before him. Like a shepherd he feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom, and leading the ewes with care” (40:10-11). God reclaims the people and restores the covenant, offering the people protection and care because they are now open to receiving God.
Similarly, this is the hope and joy we await at the coming of the Incarnation. In the midst of a dark winter or a chaotic blizzard, can we trust and find joy in the promise God offers us in the covenant? Are we prepared to receive this gift and proclaim the good news? We must ask ourselves this Advent, is the highway to our own hearts ready for God to return to us? Has the highway been cleared of the snowfall from the chaotic blizzard that has hit our lives, or do we have some more work to do to clear the path in order for God to enter our hearts?
I recognize that this requires work and effort on our part, but we do not do it alone or in vain because we have faith. We have received God’s grace. We can count on God to fulfill God’s promise in providing us with God’s love and mercy. God offers us God’s hesed—the unselfish, loyal love God always brings to the covenant. The efforts we put into our lives in allowing God to enter our hearts, will build up a Zion in which all peoples will look towards us to radiate God’s love and kindness—God’s hesed. Advent is intended to be a transformative experience for us as Christians. With a new year beginning 31 days before our secular calendar, we make time to reflect upon what we have done and what we plan to do in becoming better witnesses of faith. As children redeemed by God, we have a special place and task of reflecting God’s hesed to the world. Before we rejoice in God’s Incarnation, let us first recall God’s redemption and welcome that grace into our hearts to prepare the highway which leads us to God and God to us.