Tuesday of Week 2 of Advent – First Reading

Commentary on Isaiah 40:1-11

Today we begin a series of readings from what is known as ‘The Book of Consolation’. It consists of chapters 40 to 55 of Isaiah, and its unknown author is referred to as ‘Second Isaiah’. He is writing much later at the end of the Jews’ exile in Babylon, and speaks with confidence of their returning to Jerusalem. The name ‘Consolation’ comes from the first words of today’s reading:

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.

Comfort (“Console” in some translations) is the prevailing theme of this section compared to the more threatening prophecies of the first 40 chapters.

The opening part is actually a cantata for several voices. The time of suffering in exile is coming to an end:

…she has served her term…

The return to Jerusalem is seen as a new Exodus. The exile was seen as a punishment for Israel’s sin and infidelity. There is now to be an end of punishment and suffering:

…her penalty is paid,
that she has received from the Lord’s hand
double for all her sins.

The Jewish people were punished both by exile and by being treated as slaves and mercenaries of the conquering power. Next is written:

A voice cries…

The identity of the voice obeying the order to “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her” is left unknown, but during this Advent season, it will be applied to John the Baptist who announces the coming of the Saviour.

…prepare the way of the Lord;
make straight in the desert a highway for our God.

It was the custom in Babylonia (where the Jews were exiled), for triumphal “ways” to be made ready for the coming of a god or a victorious king. People would go ahead to prepare this way. John the Baptist will fulfil that role, but it is for each one of us as well to prepare the way for Christ to come into the lives of those who do not yet know or accept him. During Advent we will reflect on just how each one of us can do that most effectively.

As we approach Christmas, we can ask ourselves what are the obstacles in our lives preventing the coming of Jesus into our hearts. In the reading, the “way” is the road by which God’s people will make their new exodus back to their home country. It is a road with all obstacles removed, and an occasion when:

…the glory of the Lord will be revealed.

It will be revealed by the return of God’s people to their own land but, as we read this passage in Advent, ultimately, the glory of the redeeming God will be seen in Jesus Christ and in all those who live by his Spirit. This is what we are preparing for during this time.

The voice commands again: “Cry out” and the prophet asks, “What shall I cry?” The answer comes:

All flesh is grass;
their constancy
[beauty] is like the flower of the field.

The greatness and beauty of the Babylonian empire – like all empires – is coming to an end. It is going to be replaced by that of Persia, which itself will in time disappear, as has every empire since. Only:

…the word of our God will stand forever.

This is the God in whom the Israelites have put their trust, and he will not disappoint them. It is a message that Jerusalem is to proclaim to all the people. God’s message is never to be kept to oneself. This is a time to shout from the mountain tops. Shout without fear:

Here is your God!

That is what it is all about. Jesus, our God, is coming. It is for us to remind people as to why we have all those lights and celebrations…all those preparations we are now making for Christmas…all those gifts we are buying or hoping to get…all that food and drink we will put away. What will be left in the days and months that follow? What will we take from Christmas that will still be around in March, in June, in September?

He comes as a God of power, subduing all things before him. But it is a very special kind of power.

He will feed his flock like a shepherd;
he will gather the lambs in his arms
and carry them in his bosom
and gently lead the mother sheep.

What a beautiful image of our all-powerful God! What tenderness is expressed here! It is one that Jesus will develop and he, too, will call himself the “Good Shepherd” (see Matt 18:12-14, John 10:11-18). And it will not be a coincidence that the first people to pay homage at the stable in Bethlehem will be shepherds.

Christmas is a time when many people come back to church, if only for one day. Is not this the time for them to be reminded that this is the God we believe in…the God that we all need to know?

We all need to hear the words of today’s Gospel, spoken by that gentle Shepherd:

…it is not the will of your Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost. (Matt 18:14)

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