Memorial of Saint Ambrose, bishop and doctor of the Church
The readings for the day can be found here.
Several years ago I celebrated the Sabbath with a Jewish friend. It was Advent; we both recognized that in Advent the Church places us Christians in solidarity with our Jewish brothers and sisters, who await the coming of the Messiah.
The reading from Isaiah has the tone of a post-exilic writing. It speaks of passing through the desert on a highway, returning to Zion. It refers to God bringing back the people from captivity in Babylon, and the images of passing through a desert would have reminded the Jewish people of God’s earlier act of liberation, the Exodus, when God led them from slavery in Egypt through the desert to the Promised Land.
We sympathize with the Jewish people in the Babylonian captivity. They suffered such loss, the murder of friends and relatives, the forfeiture of everything that gave them pride and dignity, humiliation before the Babylonians, the robbery of the wealth and property—and on top of it all, they thought that God had abandoned them because of their sins. Who of us does not know loss, the death of loved ones, economic hardship, the humiliations and failures of everyday life, and—perhaps most painful of all—the sense that our sins have put a distance between us and God? Our experiences mirror those of our Jewish brothers and sisters in captivity, longing for the deliverance that the Messiah could bring—and we recognize this mirroring of experiences every time we sing “O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.” We experience ourselves as captive, unable to free ourselves, weak and frail, addicted to sin, incapable of breaking free from our anxieties and fear; we find ourselves paralyzed like the man in the Gospel.
But today’s readings show us how God reacts to us in the midst of our misery and captivity. There is no talk of punishment for sin here, no anger at all. Rather God speaks tenderly a word of comfort. God wants to strengthen feeble hands and weak knees, to take away all fear, to free us from whatever holds us bound so that we will leap for joy like the stag, like the mountains will do when the Messiah comes, like John the Baptist in Elizabeth’s womb. God yearns to lead us out of captivity, back home, and even to make our return easy, causing the desert to bloom with flowers and run with streams, keeping us safe from violence, leveling the way so that we don’t have to climb high mountains and descend steep inclines. Jesus, the Messiah, shows this same godly tenderness for us all, forgiving our sins and releasing us from all our addictions and fears, overcoming all paralysis so that we can walk on our own, with a sense of dignity and worth.
May God lead us out of captivity and paralysis this Advent and may we help any of our brothers or sisters who are captive, paralyzed, or joyless. O Come, O Come, Emmanuel, and ransom captive Israel.