2 December 2023

Comfort and joy: Tidings that stand the test of time

Major Malcolm Martin

A photo shows a wooden manger scene with only a baby Jesus figure present. Text reads: Comfort and joy.

In a series of Advent reflections, Major Malcolm Martin considers what God’s promise of comfort and joy looks like today.

Last December saw a degree of outrage in some circles when it emerged that one church had used an alternative version of ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’. Replacement verses, intended to make the carol more inclusive, included such lines as: ‘God rest you also, women,/ Who by men have been erased’ and ‘God rest you, queer and questioning,/ Your anxious hearts be still’.

These additions were viewed by critics as promoting ideology instead of the gospel. Updating the lyrics to one of the oldest English-language carols was always going to be a touchy subject. The carol may date back to at least the 17th century and the phrase ‘rest you merry’ – meaning ‘remain in peace and happiness’ – was used in a couple of Shakespeare’s plays. On occasions a shifting comma has linked ‘merry’ with ‘gentlemen’, giving the first line of the song a somewhat different sentiment. Even Charles Dickens made this mistake in A Christmas Carol, although it seems likely that Scrooge would have had as little time for resting merry as he did for merry gentlemen.

Across all versions of the carol, the abiding theme is that the Christmas message is one that brings tidings of comfort and joy – two things frequently expressed in the Bible. The familiar words of Isaiah 40:1–5 offer such a message: ‘“Comfort my people,” says our God… “Tell them they have suffered long enough and their sins are now forgiven…” A voice cries out, “Prepare in the wilderness a road for the Lord! Clear the way in the desert for our God! Fill every valley; level every mountain… Then the glory of the Lord will be revealed”’ (Good News Bible).

This promise was offered to a people in exile, who had suffered the destruction of their city, but God’s words of comfort speak across the centuries to people in situations of despair who need to know the comfort of his presence. The Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel said of this passage: ‘No words have ever gone further in offering comfort when the sick world cries.’

The verses include a focus on action, on God who comes to offer aid in a context of despair, who inspires people to prepare the way for the glory of the Lord. The image of a way in the wilderness both recalls the Exodus event and reverses the vision of Ezekiel 11, where God’s glory has left the building and the city. But this message is not just for the people in exile: ‘all people’ (v5) will see the glory of the Lord.

In a similar way, the Christmas message of comfort and joy is not just for Christians gathering for their carol services, but for the whole world. Events still often seem to replace comfort with suffering and despair, while some people seem to find joy only in the misfortune and downfall of others. We need a deeper sense of comfort and joy that can cut through despair to bring true hope.

At the end of Isaiah 40 we see hope in the impact of God’s comforting presence on the lives of individuals: ‘Those who trust in the Lord for help will find their strength renewed. They will rise on wings like eagles’ (v31 GNB).

The period of Advent is a valuable opportunity to consider how we are preparing to celebrate the coming of the Lord. Are there mountains and hills of pride and selfishness that need to be levelled? Are there valleys of hopelessness and despair that need to be lifted up? Do we need to renew our trust in the Lord, so that we might find our strength renewed?

The final verse of those updated lyrics to ‘God Rest You Merry, Gentlemen’ offers these lines: ‘God rest your mind, O humankind/ Let strife and conflict cease.’ That prayer is badly needed in today’s world.

Written by

Major Malcolm Martin

Major Malcolm Martin

Corps Officer, Thornton Heath

Listen to this reflection

Major Malcolm Martin has shared an extended version of this reflection on the Sunday Worship Podcast.

Sunday Worship Podcast

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