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Second Sunday of Advent
December 10, 2017

    Did you hear the glorious sounds of Handel’s Messiah in that reading from Isaiah? The version we heard lacked the familiar, exquisite poetry of the King James’ version, but the voice crying in the wilderness and the prophet announcing comfort for God’s people - valleys exalted and mountains made low - brought Handel’s heavenly music to my ears, and maybe yours. Worse things could happen, I think you will agree!

     When God’s people heard that prophecy of old, it was liberation they heard – the promise of freedom from bondage.  At last, they would be returning home after long and lonely years of exile in Babylon, far from all they held dear, cut off from their homeland by valleys and deserts, mountains and hills.  Now all that was about to change.  Their humiliation was finally coming to an end.  God would smooth their way home, filling in the valleys, bringing low the mountains, straightening the winding paths, turning the rugged land into a plain.

     What deliriously good news that must have been for the exiled Israelites! The beautiful poetry of Isaiah’s prophecy gives us a taste of just how good it was (as does Handel’s music, for that matter!). And, you know, it’s still good news.

     That’s because, like all the prophecies of old, this one needs to be heard in the now as well as the then.  God’s word was spoken in the past but it lives in the present, and God’s people of old are not the only ones in need of deliverance from exile; we are, too. We are in exile – away from home - if we are in any way distant from God, if God is not at the center of our lives; if our relationship with God is not the anchor that steadies us amid the storms of life; if God is not the source of our peace, the cause of our joy; if we find ourselves running after things – deceptive things - that promise peace and joy but which never quite deliver. And we are in exile, too, if, in our relationships with those closest to us – husband, wife, children, parents, friends – we’ve become distant, detached, touchy, always taking more than giving. You get the idea. We can all be in personal exile in need of Isaiah’s liberating word.

     And then there is a different kind of exile: the forced and tragic exile of entire peoples across the world who long to be liberated at this very moment.

     Think, for instance, of the political and economic refugees crammed into migrant camps across the world in barely human conditions. Believe it or not, there are about 63 million of them – roughly the population of France.  They are exiles.

     And so are the Palestinians trapped behind a hated wall who daily undergo demeaning searches at checkpoints just to get to work, and who will now have to live with the consequences of a decision that threatens to compromise the unique status of Jerusalem, the city whose very name means peace, their Holy City as well as the Holy City of Jews and Christians. The Palestinians are exiles. They long for liberation, every one.

     And so do the millions of persecuted Christians in places like Iraq, Iran, Syria, and Egypt who have been uprooted or who are no longer able to practice their faith in their own homelands that were once-Christian. They long for liberation.

     And so do all the undocumented “dreamers” in our own country - nearly a million young people who were brought here by their parents when they were infants. They are exiles, or potentially so. As are the people who fled their homelands because of natural disasters, wars or political oppression and came here for asylum. Many of them have become part of the very fabric of this country, but they now live under the threat of being exiled again.

     These and so many others are today’s exiles and the obstacles they face are more daunting than the deserts, valleys, or mountains of Isaiah’s prophecy. They need to hear Isaiah’s prophetic word, but who will speak it if we don’t? We are now the prophets, my friends.  We are!  That’s the call we received at our baptism when Christ the prophet claimed us for his own and promised to put his own words into our mouths.

     And I know: this can sound like politics from the pulpit. I call it morality from the pulpit, morality based on Catholic Social Teaching which calls us to look at the world situation in light of God’s Word, to form our consciences, and then to speak out. And we may feel powerless, but we have our consciences, and we have the moral compass of the gospel, and we have our voices.

     I know these are heavy thoughts for Advent when hope and light, warmth and wonder, comfort and joy are on our minds. But there is lots of room for comfort and joy. The message of Isaiah is full of both. “Comfort, give comfort to my people,” he says. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem…. Like a shepherd God feeds his flock; in his arms he gathers the lambs, carrying them in his bosom.”  So, yes, God used Isaiah of old to disturb but also to comfort, and God uses us today to do the same. We are to be prophets of justice, yes, but also messengers of mercy. 

     The coming great feast of Christmas makes all this very, very real, for, as you know, Christ came among us not only at Bethlehem: Christ comes in our time, too - in our flesh and our blood. With our voices he speaks up and speaks out, with our hands he reaches out and lifts up, with our arms he embraces and offers comfort. And if this isn’t good news, I don’t know what is! So, my friends “Go up onto a high mountain and announce the glad tidings. Cry out at the top of your voice that the Lord God comes with power! He comes in Christ, he comes in Word, he comes in sacrament, and, my friends, he comes in us!

Father Michael G. Ryan





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