A Reflection for the Second Sunday of Advent
They may be the most famous words of comfort spoken in U.S. history. They came at the most unexpected moment: April 12, 1945. The 32nd president of the United States had led the nation’s armies to the outskirts of Berlin and onto the shores of Japan’s home islands. His victory assured but far from complete, Franklin Roosevelt died of a cerebral hemorrhage at his retreat in Warm Springs, Ga. After 12 years in office, many an American could be forgiven for thinking that the presidency belonged to Franklin Roosevelt.
Roosevelt and his vice president were mere acquaintances. Harry Truman had been a compromise candidate after Democratic leadership had forced the president to jettison Henry Wallace, the outspoken and unpopular vice president during F.D.R.’s second term. Truman was so removed from the inner workings of the Roosevelt administration that he did not even know about the Manhattan Project, which had just developed the first nuclear bomb.
On that late afternoon in April, the vice president was summoned from Capitol Hill to the White House. There, the formidable first lady, Eleanor Roosevelt, greeted him with the words, “Harry, the president is dead.”
On the second Sunday of Advent, the church sounds out the stirring words of the Prophet Isaiah: “Comfort, give comfort to my people, says your God.”
Stunned, Truman stood silent for a moment. Then his native Missouri manners emerged. He asked, “Is there anything I can do for you?”
Eleanor poignantly responded to his words of comfort with her own: “Is there anything we can do for you? For you are the one in trouble now.”
On the second Sunday of Advent, the church sounds out the stirring words of the Prophet Isaiah. In them she hears her own charter from Christ:
Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God (40:1).
Why do these words express the church’s fundamental character? First, because they proclaim the core of the Gospel she professes. Christ comes as our comfort:
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 (Is 40:11).
If the church is to be conformed to Christ, she can never cease to be his comfort in the world. She must proclaim the good news of God-with-us. She is ordained to be his hands extended to the poor, the neglected, the excluded. Even her sacraments express her foundational identity. All of them can be understood as channels of Christ’s comfort.
In the baptism of a baby, a white garment swaddles the child, who is told: “You have become a new creation, and have clothed yourself in Christ. See in this white garment the outward sign of your Christian dignity.” That same comforting white cloth, in the form of a pall, is placed on the casket of the deceased. We should ponder our own baptisms every day of our lives but most especially when we need to be comforted. We firmly confess that identity is destiny.
The church is ordained to be Christ’s hands extended to the poor, the neglected, the excluded.
When the bishop anoints the one to be confirmed, he says, “Be sealed with the Holy Spirit.” What does it mean to be sealed? It means to be guarded. It is the comfort that comes with being securely enclosed.
The marriage vows we exchange also express the comfort that is ours in Christ. In this sacrament, a couple becomes his chosen vessel of comfort to one another and to the world. How can we dare to speak these words without Christ’s strength? We pronounce them in Christ, and we hear his promise of comfort in the voice of our spouse: “I take you. I promise to be faithful to you in good times and in bad, in sickness and in health, to love you and to honor you all the days of my life.”
In ordination, the bishop’s hands are laid upon the head of the candidate in silence. There is a consecratory prayer, but how can its words adequately express this mystery of comfort? The one ordained now lives to be a channel of Christ’s comfort, a sign of his abiding presence to the bride. The point of pastoring is being present when someone is hurting, doubtful or afraid.
Many a penitent is too nervous to clearly hear the words of absolution. The confessor has the privilege of repeatedly reciting them: “Through the ministry of his church, may God give you pardon and peace, and I absolve you...” The commission to pardon is ordered toward peace, toward comfort.
And what is Eucharist, the source and summit of the church’s life, if not the great comfort Christ commenced the night before he died?
Those who are seriously sick hear: “Through this holy anointing, may the Lord in his love and mercy help you with the grace of the Holy Spirit. May the Lord who frees you from sin save you and raise you up.” But the soothing oil anointing their flesh has already said the same.
And what is Eucharist, the source and summit of the church’s life, if not the great comfort Christ commenced the night before he died? Did a husband ever give himself to his wife more fully than Christ does to his bride in these words of abiding presence and attendant comfort?
Take this, all of you, and eat it,
For this is my body
Which will be given up for you.
And what wife could rival the commitment of Christ’s comfort, which is writ in his blood?
Take this, all of you, and drink from it.
For this is the chalice of my blood.
The blood of the new and eternal covenant,
Which will be poured out for you and for many,
For the forgiveness of sin.
Comfort explains why Eucharist requires our presence as surely as democracy demands our vote. We do not watch Eucharist. It is not something we observe. No, it is the act by which we cast our lot with Christ and his church, gathered at his table.
Often, we fail to recognize the greatest comforts in life until they are gone. The face of a mother, the hands of a father. Imagine celebrating Eucharist all alone each week. Then imagine how different—how comforted and confident—the church would be if all who professed the name of Christ made good on that pledge with their presence each Sunday. Maybe not this week, maybe not in the pandemic, but soon. Please Lord, soon.
Comfort, give comfort to my people,
says your God.