Comfort & Joy – the heart of Advent & Christmas

“O Comfort ye my people” says the prophet Isaiah, memorably set to music by Handel in the Messiah, and mispronounced by choirs down the decades as “come for tea, my people”, as many choirmasters will attest.

“O tidings of Comfort and Joy!” announces the familiar Christmas carol, sung each year with gusto in carol services and churches in myriad places. (For an amazing modern version by Pentatonix, see here.)

Bishop Steven recently wrote in his podcast series that Comfort is not actually the soft and cosy, “hot chocolate and hugs” that we often associate with that word nowadays. It’s a word which derives from Latin, and means “with strength” or “with courage”.

There are very definitely moments when hugs and hot chocolate can give strength or courage when we’re feeling down, but at its root, this word is about true inner strength – because courage is all about our hearts.

This year, the Church of England’s approach to Advent and Christmas is entitled “Comfort and Joy” and it juxtaposes home and church in a simple and yet detailed logo image (above). This year has been like no other in living memory, and with all the turmoil and disruption on every level of life and society, Christmas will not, this year, be in any way straightforward. This year, we truly need comfort and joy, and we all need it in differing ways. Those words will be unique to each of us.

And God’s message to each of us will be unique as well, whilst at the same time as being contained in a single word: Love. And that word could be embodied in a single person: Jesus.

Comfort and joy is not simplistic or facile. Indeed Joy is often such a deep and solemn thing, as Thomas Merton and other mystics attest. It is a feeling of utter rightness and calm, deep in the depths of our being, that is almost beyond words to express. And that feeling brings comfort to the turbulent surface of our lives, where the waters may seem broken and restless or stormy.

Joy (and comfort) also require time to be understood, and appreciated. Many years ago Archbishop Stephen Cottrell wrote a very small book called “Let It Slow”, designed to be a very different sort of Advent Calendar, calling us to reflection and quiet so that we can properly appreciate Advent and then Christmas, when it comes. (This was previously published as “Do Nothing, Christmas is Coming”.)

In a time of instant gratification, waiting and preparation does not comes easily to most of us. But that is what Advent is all about. In order for our hearts to be ready to receive God’s gift of love to us, we must first make room. We must do some dusting and sweeping of corners, get rid of the clutter and junk, and make our inner homes (our hearts) ready, even as we tidy and decorate our houses for Christmas. And even though we will have limited family and friends with us this year, we will still do this – perhaps it will be all the more precious for being shared with so few.

Comfort can take some pretty unexpected forms sometimes. The words from a stranger which spoke straight to the heart of your situation. The gift that came out of the blue, just when you needed it. The sudden “knowing” that everything would be okay, somehow, even though you don’t have a clue how.

But all of those first need us to slow down long enough to receive them! If we simply hurry through, eyes on the ground ahead of us, we miss all that goes on around, and we miss the comfort that might come to us. If we are focussed always on the surface issues of our lives, we will surely miss ever encountering the joy that may be in the depths.

John Mark Comer in “The Ruthless Elimination of Hurry” says quite clearly that joy and hurry are incompatible. I think he’s right. And sometimes it can seem that Advent and Christmas is all about hurrying and rushing to get things done – cards, presents, food, tidying, decorations, you name it!

And then, for what? If we have spent all the time hurrying and rushing, focussed only on the surface, we will have missed the meaning of our actions, the real purpose behind all our hurry. Advent will vanish in a haze of busyness and then Christmas will be gone, and all that will be left is the empty wrapping paper to pick over and throw away, and the sales of bargains that we may or may not need, to distract us from the empty fleetingness of a commercial Christmas.

Perhaps this year, of all years, we may have an opportunity to slow down and to live Advent. To think again about the message of comfort and joy that God speaks to us. Perhaps if we could slow down long enough to hear it, it might even bring comfort and joy into next year as well.

With peace and light,
Revd. Talisker