Comfort, comfort ye my people
Isaiah 40.1-11 Mark 1.1-8
One of the striking things about the lockdown earlier this year – something that strangely was absent from the lockdown in more recent weeks – was the silence that descended on the city centre. Radcliffe Square, usually crowded with tourists, was empty. I could wander from the Vicarage down into the city centre without seeing a soul. And the striking thing about that time is the fact that the gentle hum of distant traffic, the hustle and the bustle with all its attendant sounds, were gone. The city felt like a wilderness, a desert, a deserted place.
It reminded me of an experience many years ago in the Holy Land, when I found myself walking in the midst of the Judean wilderness. There was a group of us, but wandering in single file down a steep mountain path in the heat of the day, there wasn’t much chatter on the way down. The walk was quite arduous, and so you became much more conscious of the sound of your own breathing, as you sought to catch your breath in the heat of the day. You could hear the crunch of pebbles under your feet and the scree shimmering down the side of the hill. And yet I suddenly began to realise why the desert was such an important place in the imagination of monks and mystics through the centuries. The wilderness was sharpening my senses, my awareness, my capacity for attentiveness. And that is my experience of the Judaean wilderness, that experience of the sharpening of the senses and an appreciation of the desert’s vastness, it’s heat, it’s danger and most significantly of all, it’s silence
What does this perspective of the wilderness, of the desert, contribute to our experience of Advent?
St. Mark announces the beginning of his gospel by placing John the Baptist in the wilderness. We do not really know how long John had waited in the wilderness, or why he was there. But we know from sources as diverse as the contemporary Jewish historian Josephus all about John’s wanderings in the wilderness, the baptisms in the Jordan, his preaching of repentance. In these actions, John was reminding the people of Israel to renew their vocation to be God’s people by recalling them to their experience in the exodus of wandering through the wilderness and crossing the threshold of the Jordan as they came to the promised land - the baptism in the Jordan was a way of wiping the slate clean and returning from exile to Israel’s original vocation.
John is a rather disruptive kind of character “The voice of one crying out in the wilderness….” Mark describes John the Baptist’s unkempt appearance, the simplicity of his diet, and this points also to the wildness of the wilderness. There is something untamed, uncivilised and inhospitable about the wilderness. John’s stance and appearance perhaps underline the precariousness of our existence.
According to Luke, John came from a priestly family. He belonged to the heart of the Jerusalem establishment and yet he opts out of all that, he rejects its security, its wealth and its self-satisfied complacency to stand on the margins, to listen again to the authentic voice of the real God, the God who had led his people through the wilderness to the promised land. He goes out into the wilderness to rediscover the surprising God, the wild, the free and untamed God, who will not be domesticated by our all too human need to control and manipulate him.
This is the vocation of the contemplative. Thomas Merton, the great American spiritual writer of the twentieth century, wrote that John the Baptist was the primordial hermit, history’s model anchorite. In the desert, John discovers ‘the solitudes that lie / Beyond anxiety and doubt’. To be human is to understand the precariousness of our existence, but sometimes in the face of the precariousness of our existence, it is all too easy to be consumed by anxiety and fear, by doubt and despair. In the silence of the desert, can we discover the courage and the faith to see beyond our fears?
Merton once wrote a poem called The Quickening of John the Baptist. It is a poem which reflects on the role of the contemplative. Of course, when we talk about contemplatives, we find ourselves thinking about people who withdraw from the world, people who are somehow cushioned and protected from the vagaries of life, somehow safe and secure from the precariousness of our existence. And yet that cannot be right. Merton offers a rather different account of the life of the contemplative. He writes:
We are exiles at the far end of solitude, living as listeners
With hearts attending to the skies we cannot understand:
Waiting upon the first far drums of Christ the Conqueror,
Planted like sentinels upon the world’s frontier.
The place of the true contemplative lies not in a comfortable monastery or a hermitage. Merton reminds us that the place of a contemplative is one where he or she can acknowledge the precariousness of our existence. That means standing in a place on the margins, a place on the edge, a place where we may experience a certain wildness, a place where our deepest convictions and beliefs are challenged, broken and remade, because it’s a place where we meet others who understand the precariousness of human existence and who refuse to be tamed or silenced by the powers of this world; those who suffer from mental illness, the homeless, those whose lives have been ripped apart by the current pandemic, those whose faces don’t quite fit, those in real need.
‘Planted like sentinels on the world’s frontier’, that’s a good description of the life of prayer. Sometimes, we think that prayer is about finding the right words to say, finding the poetry in your soul. But perhaps our experiences of lockdown in recent months have alerted us to another aspect of the life of prayer. Sometimes we need to own our perplexity and our confusion. Sometimes we need to recognize that prayer can involve little more than watching and waiting on the edge, however precarious that may feel, as we seek to discern the signs of the kingdom, as we seek to glimpse God’s grace.
John the Baptist is an unlikely role-model for the contemplative, unlikely in that he always seems to be bristling and bursting with activity. But remember that at the beginning of his gospel, before Mark begins to describe the ministry of John the Baptist, he quotes the prophet Isaiah: ‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness’. If you go back to the prophecy of Isaiah, our first reading, and look at the oracle which Mark quotes, it’s worth noting that it begins with these words: ‘Comfort, comfort ye my people’. ‘A voice crying out in the wilderness’ sounds so dramatic, and yet we should not forget that Isaiah addresses us with a word of tenderness, a word which springs from the heart, ‘Comfort’, ‘Consolation’.
I know that for many of us, the recent weeks of lockdown have been challenging. For some of us, the last few weeks have felt like time in the wilderness. But remember that the wilderness sharpens our senses. We have discovered a greater awareness of our own needs and the needs of others, a greater awareness of the extraordinary inequalities which we find on the streets of our city. The philosopher, Simone Weil, once wrote that attentiveness is one of the greatest forms of generosity. Perhaps in these weeks and months ahead, however precarious or challenging life may feel, John the Baptist may continue to inspire us to speak words of comfort and consolation, because we live in a world which badly needs to hear them.