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Tidings of Comfort and Joy - St Luke's Christmas Angel and the Merry Gentlemen
Comfort and Joy
The origin of a phrase
Comfort and Joy is a phrase forever linked to the Christmas story. Yet for many people, the source is confused. Do you have an image of shepherds 'abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night', suddenly startled by an angel bringing tidings of comfort and joy? If you do, you are not alone. But the phrase itself is not Biblical.
St Luke, the beautiful writer, the poet among the Apostles, is the only one who mentions the shepherds. But Luke's angel never speaks of comfort:
And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.
In fact, the phrase seems first to have come from the 15th Century English Christmas carol, 'God rest ye merry, gentlemen'. The third verse tells Luke's shepherd story:
From God our heavenly Father
A blessèd angel came,
And unto certain shepherds
Brought tidings of the same,
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by name:
O tidings of comfort and joy...
And though the tidings of comfort and joy form the refrain to every verse, this is the point where the false link is established. Comfort was not any part of the original package. That was no accident. Whether you believe the story or not, St Luke remains the master story-teller. He chose his words with care. He wrote Joy into posterity and Comfort got tacked on fifteen hundred years later.
Are you sitting comfortably?
Then I'll begin, by taking a hard look at the cuckoo in the nest - comfort. What exactly does it mean? In truth, it means very little. It has no qualities of its own and is almost entirely defined as the absence of its antithesis, discomfort. Discomfort can be very real and can take many different forms. A room can be too hot or too cold. The light can be too bright or too dim. The atmosphere too dry or too humid. The bed too hard or too soft. Shoes too tight, traffic too noisy, and so on. In almost every case, we increase comfort by removing a discomfort or irritation. And having removed it, we forget it. Comfort is not a positive. It is simply an absence of negatives. Taken to the limit, it is oblivion. Abraham Maslow understood this well. He never thought of achieving comfort as an end in itself; he realised that we eliminate or overcome specific discomforts merely as a prelude to higher activity.
The rot sets in when we pursue comfort beyond a reasonable level. Having eliminated major discomforts, we may start focusing on more and more trivial irritations, sometimes even purely imaginary ones. We become malcontents, dissatisfied and implacable. And this is no surprise, because that is exactly the state the peddlars of unnecessary luxury goods want us to be in. You can't sell a new three piece suite, carpet or car without first sowing seeds of dissatisfaction with the old one.
What about Joy?
C.S Lewis entitled his autobiography 'Surprised by Joy'. It was a punning title of course, because Joy was the name of his wife, who came into his life quite late (and very dramatically) when he considered himself a confirmed bachelor. But the earlier part of the book explores the overwhelming feeling of joy, and the way it comes always as a surprise, a realisation, at unexpected moments, perhaps while walking, reading or listening to music. By inclination, Lewis was disposed to interpret these moments as evidence of the Holy Spirit (I'm simplifying here). Be that as it may, most of us will recognise the phenomenon of inexplicable intense gratitude for life that can catch us off guard. That is joy, pure joy. It cannot come from comfort alone.
It is my thesis that joy gives purpose to life. It is of no commercial value because it cannot be bought and sold. I can buy a guitar or flute and take some pleasure from the purchase, but joy is only to be found in playing it (and not every time!) I have had some of my most intense joyous moments while hill-running, an experience that can by no stretch of the imagination be called comfortable. Lewis's joy equates very closely to Robert Pirsig's 'Quality' (Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and his conclusions are similar - it comes from total involvement in the instant and completely forgetting the self. It comes from activity (mental or physical), not passivity. There are as many paths as there are people. Believe no-one who claims to have the way.
So, here are my tidings: great joy is there, for the taking. It has nothing to do with comfort. And as Luke's angel said: it is for all people.
Thank you for reading!