“Comfort ye, Comfort ye my people”
says your God
“Speak comfort to Jerusalem,
and cry unto her
that warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned,
for she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.”
A voice of one crying out:
“Prepare, in the dessert, the road of the LORD;
make straight a highway for our God.
Every valley will be raised.
every mountain and hill will be made low;
the rough will become smooth and the rugged become plain.
And the LORD’s Glory will be revealed,
and all will see it together
for the mouth of the LORD has declared it.”
The season leading up to Easter is known, in liturgical traditions, as Lent. During these forty days Christians fast from something. Usually you hear people saying they’ll give up one item or habit, such as chocolate, or sleeping in rather than an outright fast, but still a noticeable shift. It’s meant to recall other significant periods of forty. Forty days of fasting that Jesus experienced between his baptism and temptation, forty days of rain upon Noah’s ark, forty years of wandering and waiting in the untamed lands between Egypt and Canaan. It is also meant to recall the period of exile in Babylon. Here, it was not forty, but seventy years of exile. Exile to pay back the land its Sabbath that had been neglected and forgotten.
When Easter ends, the fasting should stop, there is great celebration. In more liturgical traditions (such as Roman Catholic or Anglican churches) they might not use the word “hallelujah” from Ash Wednesday until Easter. So when it reappears in the church, it’s a big deal. Celebration, rejoicing. Christ has come back from the dead, laying death down in its grave! The time for fasting is over! It’s time for celebration and feasting, a fore-echo of the wedding supper of the lamb.
This year, many hundreds of millions, if not billions, experienced a taste of some form of fasting or exile, if not necessarily voluntarily, due to the now ubiquitous term “social distancing.” Still, it may have been made more bearable for some as it seemed appropriate for Christians to be more secluded, to spend time struggling, and to have more isolation during the period of Lent, even while we wish and pray the circumstances were more voluntary and less dire. But now, Easter has come. Shouldn’t this fasting and exile be over? Shouldn’t we be coming out of homes, seeing and touching, interacting, and playing and dancing? Shouldn’t the exile of businesses be over and done? Shouldn’t I be able to go to a restaurant, or to a movie theater, or to a coffee shop, or library, or classroom? Why isn’t the exile over?
The bible has a lot to say about exile. During graduation season, which this year will be more than a little different, many seniors receive cards quoting the prophet Jeremiah “I know the plans I have for you, declares the Lord, plans to prosper and not harm you, plans for bright hope and a future.” The greater context for this passage is, of course, that this message of hope and good will is delivered on the eve of exile. None that could hear and understand it would return back to that land. They would die in exile. Many of their children would be born, grow old, and die in exile. Knowing this, Jeremiah goes out and buys a parcel of land. “I’ll be back for this” he declares; but Jeremiah is never seen again once exile comes.
In the New Testament, after the resurrection, the early Church waited for the soon return of Jesus. They heard his words that “I go to prepare a place for you. If I go, I will come back” and waited…and waited…and waited. The delay in Christ’s return, it seems, caused something of a crisis. This is likely behind Paul’s admonishment to the Thessalonians to continue working as they wait for the return. It may even be a large part of the reason John wrote his letters to the seven churches in Revelation. The people were stuck between Easter and the end of exile (and exile under Roman Emperors renown for their persecution like Nero and later Diocletian, no less). The Resurrection had come, Jesus had ascended, but still they waited. This period, where the tension between the already present and still coming Kingdom of God is felt strongest, continues on today. As citizens of another country, we Christians live in exile, one that has not yet ended. The message for those in exile is one of hope.
The book of Isaiah spends roughly 39 chapters hammering at the people to turn from their sin to avoid exile. In chapter 40, Isaiah changes his tone and audience. The prophet begins to speak not to those who lived prior to exile, but to those who have come through the other side. His opening words are “comfort.”
Opening words are often important, especially in ancient literature. The Iliad begins with “Rage, rage of Achilles” signifying a major theme that would be that hero’s undoing. At this critical shift, the prophet’s words to the people are “Comfort.”
It’s important, I think, to acknowledge that Isaiah wrote this prior to the end of exile (prior, even, to the beginning of exile). All throughout the years of laboring and waiting and wondering when or if it would ever end, the people of God could look to God’s words of “Comfort” to “my people.”
And so, as this exile feels a bit more acute with the onset of isolation, quarantine, social distancing, shuttered businesses, lost jobs, financial strain, and so much death and mourning all due to a virus most of us scarcely understand, we can still look to these words: “Comfort, Comfort.” God, though not seen as expressly, closely and intimately as before, is still active. He is still working. God is preparing a straight, level, even and therefore swift path in the dessert. All will see it the Glory of God because God Himself has declared it will be so. And on that glorious day, God will bring comfort.
“In this world you will have trouble” Jesus assured his disciples as his death drew near, “but take heart, I have overcome the world.” So in your own exile, take heart, and hear the words of comfort. This is not the end. This is the tension and sorry that comes with anticipation!