Second Sunday in Advent

Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem… (Isa 40:1-2a)

How long, O Lord? I ask versions of David’s question often at this time of year, the Christian season of waiting. How long until Jesus returns? How long until God fills the hungry and lifts up the lowly?

How long, I ask — like David, must I bear pain in my soul?

Christ the Good Shepherd (5th c. mosaic)
5th c. mosaic of Christ the Good Shepherd – Creative Commons (Vanderbilt Divinity Library)

As some of you know, it was two years ago today that my friend Stacey lost her battle with cancer. How long must the many of us who knew and loved her continue to grieve? Will that sorrow always color Advent? Didn’t I go through this all last yearHow long, O God?

All those questions came to mind last Sunday, during an adult class on grief taught by a friend of mine named Jane Hutchins-Peterson. A pastor and spiritual director who has experienced tragic losses herself, Jane had much wisdom to offer, including this lesson: There’s no timeline for grief.

In a sense, that’s reassuring. Even ten minutes into the class, listening to Jane and others share their losses had left me feeling both sad and ridiculous. It’s been two years, I thought. Shouldn’t I have moved on? But no, you can’t hurry grief.

Even knowing that truth, though, it’s hard to go through this process year after year. To use a word Jane mentioned several times last Sunday, grieving leaves you tender.

That’s not an entirely bad thing. In the gospel text I quoted last week, Jesus pointed his disciples to the fig tree: “as soon as its branch becomes tender and puts forth its leaves, you know that summer is near.” Tenderness is necessary for new growth, for new life. Tenderness hints at hope.

But that’s in the future. In the present moment, tenderness is also awkward, painful, and frustrating. So it’s good to read in today’s text from Isaiah that the same Lord God who “comes with might” also “will gather the lambs in his arms, and carry them in his bosom, and gently lead the mother sheep” (40:11).

As we gather this Advent to worship our mighty, gentle Shepherd, may we offer his care to those grieving around us. When they ask How long?, may we speak tenderly, answering less with our words than with whatever comfort they need most.