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A number of years ago I took a course on the Hebrew prophets. When we reached the fortieth chapter of Isaiah, our professor suddenly, without warning, burst forth into Handel’s Messiah:

“Comfort ye, co – – mmm – fo – orrrt ye – – – my pe-eo-ple . . .”

The sudden shift from academic exegesis to musical cry was nothing if not startling, but it was beautiful. Not many people could have pulled it off successfully.

During Advent I remember the singing professor as I ponder the passage from Isaiah which begins the chapters called the “Book of Consolation.”

Comfort, O comfort my people,
says your God.
Speak tenderly to Jerusalem,
and cry to her
that her warfare is ended,
that her iniquity is pardoned . . .
(Isaiah 40:1-2a)

These lines refer to the end of the Babylonian exile. God’s people need assurance that the exile is nearly over, and that God is faithful and merciful. Even though they were written with a particular historical situation in mind, these words speak also to each of us. Is there any one of us who doesn’t need comfort? Is there any one of us who doesn’t need to hear a word of forgiveness? This is a God who cares about us, who says, “Speak tenderly,” or “Speak to the heart.” God wants to comfort us. God says to us over and over, “I’m not an adversary — I’m on your side. You don’t need to be in exile any longer. Come home to me. Let me comfort you. ”

But to whom is God speaking? Who is supposed to be the agent of God’s comforting? Heavenly beings? The prophet? Yes, but also ourselves. We are called to give comfort, as well as to receive it — to be the one speaking to the heart of God’s people, proclaiming the forgiveness of sins and the end of exile through Emmanuel, God-with-us.

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