Comfort; comfort my people

A sermon for the Second Sunday of Advent. Our diocese has announced new suspensions of in-person worship through the Christmas season, as COVID cases soar locally and nationally. In the meantime, Isaiah offers comfort, John advises preparation, Peter counsels patience.

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Comfort, comfort my people, says the prophet, says our God, for they are in distress, and hope is hard to come by. Comfort them.

I spoke to several of you last week and sometimes the talk turned toward Christmas and I explained that we – that is, I, in consultation with others – had decided that we were not going to try to mimic a normal Christmas Eve in abnormal times. We could not replicate the experience of gathering in the darkening Nave as Silent Night made candles flicker and flutter with the breath of a hundred people and the star began to shine. We would not have those unguarded moments of grace, seeing someone for the first time in a year and laughing our recognition. We cannot sing O Come All Ye Faithful while telling everyone to stay home.

But comfort, comfort my people. For the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.

It has spoken with the keening cry of a newborn infant and the gruff, rough voice of prophets and fishermen crying, “Prepare the way!”

When we spoke during the week, I mentioned our plans for a Living Nativity, complete with a borrowed goat, that we had yet to schedule a time for on the front lawn. After reading our Bishop’s letter on Friday, I quickly emailed the Christmas planning team and reluctantly put the kibosh on the stable. I was so looking forward to that goat. But the Bishop, in concert with his counterpart in Southern Ohio, was right to call us to account for our love of neighbour.

If we drew people together around a goat and a few costumes in order to find ourselves close to one another on Christmas Eve, even we planned to keep our distance and our masks on; if we really, secretly, hoped that the world and her dog would stop by to gaze upon the glory of the Lord on our front lawn, then we would be risking all kinds of interactions and cross-infections. I had for a moment thought that we were safe enough, but reading reports of the morbid request from the County Coroner’s office for refrigerated trucks to extend the capacity of their morgue ahead of the holiday; reading that alongside the letter from the Bishop persuaded me that we can do even more to love our neighbours this Christmas. We can stay even closer to home.

It is another cancellation, another adjustment, another twinge of grief, guilt, second-guessing, another sigh too deep for words, and I confess my part in setting us up for disappointment. But we would be so much more disappointed if we, in fact, exposed one another to serious harm.

The good news of Jesus Christ begins with a voice crying in the wilderness, “Prepare the way, make straight the paths.” The straight and clear way to prepare love this Christmas is to stay at home.

But comfort, comfort my people.

We are hungry for hope, and so are the neighbours that surround us. We are weary for joy, and so are our children. Our faith is parched, and the best way to renew it is to share it. We can still comfort one another, and the others who belong to God, this Christmas, without gathering outside of good health advice.

We invite you to add to our Christmas card project by making lawn signs and large boards with a message of Christmas hope to install on our lawn. If you have seen the Christmas board that our members made for the City of Euclid display at Triangle Park, you’ll have a good idea of what I mean. Sharing inspiration, being creative, and collaborating with our community lifted the spirits of those who participated. Comfort, comfort my people, and you will find comfort for yourselves.

I do encourage you to join in the virtual diocesan choir and its carol singing. If you have not received that email or need some help, do let me know. We will use the finished carols at our service after Christmas, and it would be wonderful to see one another included.

Many of you will have received candy canes this weekend, put together and distributed by Santas United, a tribute band named after the famous St Nicolas. Consider how it made you feel, and how you might be able to reach out to someone with a card, or a phone call; something safe to bring you mutual comfort during this most unusual season. Comfort, comfort my people; it really does help us to know the love of God when we discover new ways to share that love with others across all that divides us.

As we continue to adjust and readjust our plans to celebrate the Nativity of our Lord – and there will be more details to come – we can remember the lessons of Advent: that God is not far from us; that Christ is coming, whether we are ready with our plans or not; that the patience of the Lord is our salvation. We can prepare the way by remembering the love of God that comforts us still.

Comfort, comfort my people, says the Lord.

About Rosalind C Hughes

Rosalind C Hughes is a priest and author living near the shores of Lake Erie. After growing up in England and Wales, and living briefly in Singapore, she is now settled in Ohio. She serves an Episcopal church just outside Cleveland. Rosalind is the author of A Family Like Mine: Biblical Stories of Love, Loss, and Longing (Upper Room Books, 2020). She loves the lake, misses the ocean, and is finally coming to terms with snow.
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