From Rev. Anna Bishop
One of the Advent rituals I shall most miss this year is my annual treat of a live performance of Handel’s Messiah. Since coming to Salisbury this has become an even greater delight, as we usually go with my parents to the glorious setting of Salisbury Cathedral to hear it. We often meet many friends from SMc there, so I know I shall not be alone in missing this experience this Advent.
That soaring opening phrase of that first solo, “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people…” always send a shiver down my spine. These words are taken from the passage in Isaiah 40 that we usually hear on the second Sunday of Advent, and don’t we just need to hear them this year!
These are the opening words of second Isaiah, when the book’s message turns from doom to hope! These lines are spoken by God, instructing God’s prophet to deliver God’s comforting message of courage and hope to God’s people languishing miserably in their Babylonian exile.
But Charles Jennens, Handel’s librettist, did not go on to quote the rest of the passage in its entirety. For at verse 6, when the prophet asks, “What shall I cry?”, God replies, “All people are grass, their constancy is like the flower of the field. The grass withers, the flower fades, when the breath of the Lord blows upon it; surely the people are grass. The grass withers, the flower fades; but the word of our God will stand forever.” Perhaps Jennens did not find this quite so comforting!
And perhaps most years we don’t either. It is often said that we do not read the Bible, but the Bible reads us, and Biblical commentator Cynthia A. Jarvis writes that this text is particularly sharp in the way it reads us:
“Those who live with the illusion of control over their circumstances will feel only dread when such a cry enters speech. But those who suffer under the brutal might of the oppressor will hear the gospel.”
This year has been one in which those of us accustomed to believe that we have control over our own circumstances, have had that particular illusion well and truly shattered. So this year we might indeed feel comforted by the reminder that nothing lasts forever – even global pandemics. Thanks be to God!
And painful as the dismantling of that illusion continues to be, it is our faith that God uses all things, even suffering, for our transformation. Perhaps, if we are willing, God can use the pain of this pandemic to bring us to a solidarity with those whose lives are always beyond their control; to develop in us an empathy for “those who long have suffered under another’s death-dealing rule…”
If we have found lockdown hard to bear, if we have longed for it to be over, how much harder to bear is life-long poverty, how much more do the exploited long for their suffering to be over?
Instead of returning with a sigh of relief to our “lives secured by position and privilege” whenever this pandemic abates, let us be inspired by our own experience of helplessness to relieve the pain of those whose suffering will not be over when a COVID-19 vaccine is rolled out.
This Advent, may God inspire us to reflect on how we, as individuals and as a church community, might respond to God’s call: “Comfort my people…speak tenderly…” so that we might not merely wait passively for, but be an active part of the revealing of “the glory of the Lord” so that “all people shall see it together!”