A COMFORTING CHRISMAS
by Hugh Farquhar
The Old Testament Lectionary Reading designated for the Second Sunday in Advent is Isaiah 40:1-11. The first verse caught my attention: “Comfort, O comfort my people” says your God. “Speak tenderly to Jerusalem.” (Isaiah 40:1)
One evening I joined the throngs to do some Christmas shopping. I was looking for a comforter as a gift. There were many from which to choose. When I got home, I got to thinking about how they came to be called that. I thought it was an old word but when I looked it up in the dictionary, I discovered it only came to be used to describe a blanket or a quilt in the mid 1800s.
Comforter is a good word to describe the item. It conveys the provision of warmth and consolation, a refuge from the cold and from the burdens of the day. We can wrap ourselves in it and feel cozy and content.
The prophet Isaiah gave such a gift figuratively to the people of Israel amid troubling times. It was contained in a message of comfort that was to warm their hearts and console their spirits. They had been through so much: their land invaded, their sacred places desecrated, and many of their people carried off into captivity in Babylon.
Isaiah’s comforting message was first heard in that context. It included that their sins were forgiven, that they would be returning home, and that God would be with them in that homecoming. The passage ends with a picture of God’s arrival, God coming in power to reign. He does not come with the usual accoutrements of royalty: trumpets, royal robes. and a white stallion. Instead he comes as a shepherd gently leading the sheep, carrying the little ones in his arms, and feeding the whole flock.
That is an Advent theme also. Surrounded by the symbols of the season, we celebrate “tidings of comfort and joy.” We do rather well on the joy part. I am not so sure we always grasp the comfort aspect that many of us need to accentuate most.
The One who is coming is the One who has come as a Comforter, to be the warmth of a Parent’s heart for us and to wrap us round with a Presence that in life, in death, in life beyond death, is with us.
But the comfort God offers us is not a comfort that lulls us into a spineless and anaemic passivity. The verb “to comfort” literally means “to strengthen, encourage, or make brave.” To be comforted by God is to be invigorated to live and grow through the difficult and painful stretches of our existence. God’s comforting Spirit empowers us to assume a stance of gentle defiance as a key attitude of the spiritual life.
Throughout this pandemic period, we have been encouraged by my colleagues in ministry to exercise such defiance, to keep on keeping on, and to be strengthened by the knowledge that we are not alone, for God’s comforting presence is always with us.
As Christmas draws near, there may be occasions when, rather than saying “Merry Christmas” to someone, it might be more appropriate for us to say, “I hope you have a comforting Christmas.”
Hugh Farquhar is Minister Emeritus at St. Paul’s United Church, Riverview, NB. For the past twenty-eight years he has been an Instructor in Biblical Studies at Atlantic School of Theology, Halifax, NS.