The word comfort has become rather devalued in our times. It’s often used in a way that suggests that to seek comfort or to find comfort or even to give it is rather soft and insignificant. We talk about ‘comfort food’, when we turn to our favourite cakes or stews or puddings to warm our cold bodies. We speak of faith as a ‘comfort blanket’ when times are tough, as though needing comfort is just a childish thing and that adults shouldn’t need it. We ask, rather patronisingly, ‘are you sitting comfortably?’ at the beginning of a story. Comfort is the name of a proprietary fabric softener. We talk about comfortable chairs. We talk about challenging the comfortable, as though comfort goes with complacency. We often talk about comfort as though it’s almost bound to be empty and reality-avoiding, rather trivial.
I wonder why we have reduced comfort to the softness of a jumper or the warmth of a blanket or the taste of a favourite food, when actually ‘comfort’ used to have a much stronger sense entirely? Even the dictionary now will tell us that to find comfort is to be freed from pain or that to give comfort is to alleviate someone’s grief or distress. And the word itself, from its Latin roots, actually means to give ‘strength’. And the Holy Spirit is called the Comforter, the one who comes to strengthen us.
I saw a remark recently from someone who said that she didn’t want the usual nostalgic, comforting Christmas this year. She wanted one that would be as disturbing as the times we live in. And I understand what she was saying, but I’m not afraid to say that, right now, this year, this Advent, this Christmas, I want some comfort – some comfort and joy. And it’s not that I want something syrupy and insubstantial, something frivolous and fluffy, I want real comfort, real strength, something that can hold me and you, and all of us, through this very hard time.
I can remember a time in my life when I was profoundly bereaved. I know that many of you have shared the experience and few of us escape it. There are times in bereavement when the pain is almost or actually physical. It really hurts. You wonder how on earth you are going to get through the days, and months and years. You cannot find an easy place to rest, ever. You are profoundly distressed – and our usual flimsy use of the word ‘uncomfortable’ doesn’t do it. But you want, you crave, you long for ‘comfort’, someone to put their arms round you – literally or in some other way – and comfort you, to somehow pass on to you their strength while you haven’t any, to hold you firm and make the pain bearable at least for a moment. I can remember that even the food I loved couldn’t comfort me; I remember that in company I just wanted to be alone and alone I just wanted company, and I remember that sleep wouldn’t come until I was weak with exhaustion and I could barely rest. Some people said to me, ‘We will come and see you again when you are feeling better’, but others stayed with me, held me and reassured me that better days would come, and that they would not leave me until that time. They comforted me. They strengthened me. I needed that and I found it. I was comforted.
So, I don’t think we should belittle the idea of comfort. Sometimes, in all our lives, it might make the difference between living and giving up. Sometimes it is what we need more than anything. Some pains are so deep that we need something, or someone, to bring us comfort. It’s not for softies or wimps – it is what will and does give us strength to survive. We tend to associate comfort, or course, with mothers, because some of us at least find comfort in the embrace of our mothers and some of us know what it is to give it. It is that really bodily, basic, being there with someone that, in the end, and at our end, is what we need. But somehow, perhaps because sometimes people can be a bit sniffy about the love that women often give, we rate comfort lower down the skill set than more apparently macho things like ‘challenge’ or ‘encouragement’ or even ‘salvation’. But sometimes what we truly need is a bit of comfort.
The Bible knows this. The text we heard from Isaiah, and that Handel so movingly set to music, knows this. There are two great crises that the Old Testament narrates; the time of slavery Egypt from which the slaves got out in a great Exodus and left their masters behind – and the Exile, when the people were captured and taken to Babylon in captivity, leaving behind Jerusalem. By the rivers of Babylon, we sat down and wept – you will know some version or other of the song.
Into that second crisis, into that pain and grief and struggle, God spoke to the people, ‘Comfort, O comfort my people’. Normally we read that passage and we go on and read the bits about the voice that urges the people to prepare a straight path, to sort themselves and the world out, to level the uneven ground and make the rough places smooth, words of deep and inspiring challenge. But there are days, and perhaps these days are some of them, when first of all we need to hear those words of comfort. When we are in pain, when the world is against us, when life frankly stinks, we want and we need the comfort of God. And of course we don’t need the kind of comforts that just distract us for a moment, or that numb the pain or lie to us about it – we need the kind of comfort that is like a mother rushing to a child who has fallen or a baby who is crying with hunger or a toddler who cannot find the words to express her frustration. We need comfort like that. We need the comfort of a strong God, of a God who can give us strength, and who loves us like the strongest and most understanding mother. This is a year, I think, to remember the comforting voice that the prophet brought to the people.
Of course comfort can never only be my comfort or the comfort of a few. Once we are alert to pain and suffering and sorrow we want everyone to be comforted with tenderness and compassion. We look at places where some are comfortable while others suffer, and we cannot rest. The pain of others becomes our pain too and we pray for comfort for others – as we learn even to bring comfort wherever we can, however stumblingly and falteringly. Comfort for us has to mean the comfort of all. I know some who will say, for example, that they give presents to their own loved ones and then they give something of the same kind of value to others in the world who need comfort in these times. And if we’ve ever received comfort, the kind of comfort that can be life transforming, then we want to find ways to give it to others too. Not the pretence of a comfort blanket or a temporary respite from pain, but the kind of comfort that leaves people stronger – com fort.
One of the things I remember from my childhood (and I admit that it’s a rather odd thing to remember) is some of the words of the Book of Common prayer communion service. I suppose I heard them often enough at one stage. I remember that after a pray of confession the priest would say, ‘Hear what comfortable words our Saviour Christ saith unto all who truly turn to him.
Come unto me, all ye that travail and are heavy laden, and I will refresh you. St. Matt. xi. 28.
So God loved the world, that he gave his only-begotten Son, to the end that all that believe in him should not perish, but have everlasting life. St. John iii. 16.
This is uniquely part of the Anglican liturgy and I think it is beautiful and strong. I knew, even as a child, that the word ‘comfortable’ here was not about sitting nicely on a cushion or being well off financially or anything less than the kind of reassurance and strength we all need to find.
We are living through a time when it’s pretty obvious that lots of people need comfort. The BBC news one day this week had an item with two (male) vicars from Burnley reduced to weeping at the plight of the people they have met recently – children in hunger ripping open packages from the Foodbank. Times are hard. And in your poor wounded soul too there lies may be someone in need of comfort. If that’s so, then this service today, is for you. ‘Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God’. God speaks tenderly and all will be well.
May comfort come into our lives and into this world right now, wherever it is needed. And if our God comes like a mother to comfort her people, then let us too, in our turn, practise a comforting love for those around us, to those who might turn to us, and speak tenderness in tough times. Amen.