Dante opens the Divine Comedy by telling us that his odyssey began as he traveled in the darkness of middle age: “Midway in our life’s journey, I went astray/ From the straight road and woke to find myself/ Alone in a dark wood.” A few lines later he assures us, “But since it came to good, I will recount/ all that I found revealed by God’s grace” (John Ciardi trans.).
Carl Jung wisely taught that unless we enter this destabilizing darkness of midlife, we will likely end up as “hypochondriacs...doctrinaires, applauders of the past, or eternal adolescents.” But if we enter in faith, it can come to good, as Dante said, with God’s grace revealing much.
Israel had its midlife crisis, its own darkness. God had promised David that his kingdom would remain forever (2 Sm 7). And when that dynasty was destroyed, it appeared that God had reneged. The catastrophic impact of the Babylonian conquest on Israel’s consciousness cannot be overplayed. Now lost in the darkness of exile, Israel had to face its sinfulness and rethink its relationship with God and even its identity. Many of the psalms of lament come from this time. Consider: “By the rivers of Babylon we sat mourning and weeping when we remembered Zion” (Ps 137).
For this community in darkness, God commands the prophet: “Comfort, give comfort to my people.... Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” A (heavenly?) voice then cries out: “In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord,” creating a gentle road home where valleys are filled and hills made low. Like a shepherd, God promises to guide and feed Israel, and to carry the people like sheep in his very bosom.
The Gospel reading, from the beginning of Mark, introduces John the Baptist by quoting our first reading to identify him as that voice crying out. But there is a twist. John’s baptism is one of repentance, and he announces the arrival of “one mightier,” who will “baptize you with the Holy Spirit.” John looks wild, clothed in camel hair and girded with a belt. The reference is to Elijah, who was to return and usher in the time of the messiah (2 Kgs 1:8; Mal 4:5). This makes John a bit of a disturbing presence.
On the one hand, John anticipates an even greater salvation than the one announced by Isaiah. On the other hand, what he imagines is probably much more apocalyptic, the context darker and more violent. So while the news is good, it is also very disquieting.
These two readings, taken together, might lead us to the often-repeated dictum: God wants to comfort the afflicted and afflict the comfortable. There is indeed a truth here. What the exiles needed, and what God’s providence intended, was a way home. Our reading is God’s first announcement of these plans. What broken people need is healing, not challenge. In contrast, given the imperative of the Gospel, what John the Baptist’s listeners needed was repentance and readiness for the kingdom of God to envelop them. The different situation called for a very different message, now far more challenging.
I have never liked this dictum about God and affliction. It is as though our normal condition is to be in pain. If we are not there already, God will put us there. Or it is as if the only time we experience the gentleness of God is when we are suffering. Perhaps a better way to frame our relationship with God follows those insights of Dante. When we enter the darkness, God is there to help us face what must be faced and uncover what must be discovered. And God’s light guides us out to a new experience of salvation. In both cases God leads us where we must go, not to afflict us but to draw us ever closer to our truest self in him.