"Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…" Is 40:1
Some of Scripture’s most sublime poetry lies within Isaiah 40. It is the poetry of God’s comforting presence in the midst of darkness and seeming abandonment. In her little book titled "40 Stories to Stir the Soul," Sister Joan Chittister shares a wonderful Hasidic tale that captures God’s tender presence.
"Once upon a time, the local Jewish congregation was concerned that their rabbi disappeared every Sabbath night. Was he chanting with angels? Was he praying with Elijah? Was he communing directly with God? So, after months of this, they finally sent someone to follow him and report back to them on where the rabbi was going.
"Sure enough, the next Sabbath eve, the rabbi went up a mountain path, over the crest of the mountain to a cottage on the far side of the cliff. And there the sexton could see through the window, an old gentile woman lying sick in bed, wasting away. The rabbi swept the floor, chopped the wood, lit the fire, made a large pot of stew, washed the bedclothes, and then left quickly in order to get back to the synagogue in time for morning services.
"The congregation demanded to know: ‘Did our rabbi go up to heaven?’ The sexton thought for a moment, then replied, ‘Oh no. Our rabbi did not go up to heaven. He went much higher than that.’"
In 587 BC, in the brutal aftermath of the Babylonian invasion and destruction, Jerusalem and the townships of Judah lay in ruins; the Jewish leadership lived in Babylonian exile, seemingly abandoned and without hope. In their darkest moment, God summoned his prophet Isaiah to console Jerusalem, to tell them God has never left them. But, rather, like the rabbi who traveled to the far side of a distant cliff to care for the sick old woman, God was always present to the Jews even in distant pagan Babylon to offer his tender comfort. Indeed, it was in that darkest period of their history, that the Jews reflected, studied and encountered God most profoundly in their Scriptures.
In this Advent Season, the message of Isaiah speaks to us, too. Wherever we are, whatever our situation, whatever we’ve done, God still loves us, still cares for us. And in the midst of our darkest moments, there is hope in the wilderness, and the words of hope are these: "Comfort, give comfort to my people." Does God remain distant from us, way up in heaven? Oh, no. He is much higher than that. He is present in our midst.
Deacon Manuel Valencia is on the staff at Mater Dolorosa Passionist Retreat Center, Sierra Madre, California.