Comfort and Joy

Comfort, O comfort my people,
    says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
    and cry to her
that she has served her term,
    that her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
    double for all her sins.

A voice cries out:
“In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,
    make straight in the desert a highway for our God.
Every valley shall be lifted up,
    and every mountain and hill be made low;
the uneven ground shall become level,
    and the rough places a plain.
Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed,
    and all people shall see it together,
    for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.”
[Isaiah 40:1-5]

R-20100513-0065.jpg

François Boucher after Abraham Bloemaert, Figure Studies including Seated Mother and Child, published 1735, etching on laid paper, Ailsa Mellon Bruce Fund.

When I read this passage, my mind instantly fills with music. First Handel’s Messiah, a powerful, beautiful and mature piece. Then “Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord” from Godspell, an energetic and youthful, but no less powerful piece. The pieces present such different ideas: the idea of comfort – calming and peaceful and deserved, a parent comforting a child – and a herald exclaiming the joy of preparing for the coming Lord. I have struggled to come to terms with the two views. How do they come together as one passage and one message? It was in the struggle, and discussion with others, that I realized the two passages are not truly separate but in fact linked, particularly when viewed through the season of Advent.

The first portion of Isaiah talks of comforting the people who have been in exile. They have been through much and “will be comforted and rewarded.” Much like the Hebrew people, in exile waiting for redemption, the early Christians were waiting for the coming of Christ and the redemption that his coming would bring. In fact, the term advent comes from the Latin word for “coming.”  The second part of Isaiah moves on from comforting to tell us to “prepare the way of the Lord,” for the Lord is coming. Historically, Christians believe that they were preparing the way for the Lord to come again quickly, but as time has moved on, the date for the return has become more distant and ambiguous.

As different as the two views are, they also come together beautifully. A mature, experienced point of view may be a better source of comfort after hardship, while the anticipation of waiting for something amazing and exciting and joyful is often best seen through the eyes of a child. So while I started out thinking about music, in the end, this passage reminds me of family. During Advent particularly, we are surrounded by reminders of family. With this text I am reminded how family comforts us with the strength of our parents’ arms during times of difficulty, and jumps for joy like a five year old celebrating the coming of Christmas (ok the presents, but still!) In fact, it is the knowledge that we will be comforted if we fall that allows us to feel the joy and anticipation of the coming gift – the Messiah.

So we should sing both the classic Hallelujah with grace and majesty as we clap our hands and dance and sing Prepare Ye the Way of the Lord! We should reach for our parents and grandparents, and their memories, as someone reaches for us. And we should jump for joy with the excitement of the best present EVER coming in this season of Advent.

Listen:

“Comfort Ye My People & Every Valley”
from “Messiah” by George Frideric Handel
Performed by Eric Berry

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