“Comfort ye,” wrote the Prophet Isaiah, a man who – to put it mildly – had to denounce the sinfulness, to say many uncomfortable things, to the stiff-necked Israelites, which is to say to people very like ourselves. A people, like people in every age, in need of comforting, true comforting, because of the turmoil around them and within them – often the result of their own waywardness – with no ordinary human remedy in sight.
It must have been a crucial message even back then, because Isaiah repeats it and – surprisingly – even specifies from whence it came: “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” (Is. 40:1-2)
All that, of course, has inspired and encouraged the world for nearly 3000 years, which has included many moments even more troubled than our own deeply bewildered age. Just a few centuries ago, it gave Georg Friedrich Handel the inspiration for his Messiah, which many of us will hear in this season. A servant stumbled in on Handel just as he finished writing the Hallelujah Chorus and found him in tears: “I did think I did see all Heaven before me, and the great God Himself.” If you are prone to doubt divine inspiration, consider: Handel produced that immortal 260-page score in just twenty-four days.
And Isaiah’s spirit is still alive among us.
To be comforted should not to be confused with being comfortable. The worldly have always accused Christians of being moral scolds and all too ready to be self-satisfied in the assurance of Heaven, while the world goes to Hell. But a real believer knows – and it daily becomes more evident in our time – that it’s in the world where no forgiveness is found and the human race labors under multiple illusions of comfortableness.
We know there is comfort, ultimately, because we know the true Comforter has come among us, with the precise remedy we could not have gained ourselves. As the prophet himself records, Israel is to be comforted, not by becoming wealthy or even enjoying a period of peace. She is comforted because “her warfare is accomplished,” which is to say all the struggles, the victories and defeats, the disastrous departures from the true path and the sincere conversions, the captivity in Babylon and the return to the land of promise.
They aren’t ended. They can’t be, ever, in this world. But the battle has, in some divine way that wasn’t immediately perceptible even in Isaiah’s day, achieved its goal: iniquity is pardoned and forgiveness abounds far in excess of it. Only a God, the true God, can do that.
I confess that I sometimes wake up on Christmas – sometimes on Easter, too – with a sense of what peace must feel like for a soldier after some great battle. I don’t think it’s only because of my tumultuous line of work. For me, on these holidays, it can be like the first day you feel really good again after a bout with the flu. There will be similar maladies and tussles up ahead – as you know quite well – but for now, the air is clear, the body light, and the spirit comforted.
The only way we can rightly feel comforted amid our worldly strife is because Christ has won the battle, before the fact in Isaiah, openly since He walked the Earth. Remembering the birth of Him as a newborn child this week evokes all the good feeling any sane person should have at a human life coming into the world. But also something more, infinitely more, what I’ve written before on this holiday as satisfaction of “the world’s desire.”
It’s a commonplace, not only of Christian thought but even of the best pagans, that mere things can never satisfy us. The desire for things, absent a clear understanding of what things are for, won’t lead to greater happiness or final release. Can’t lead to our being comforted because our distress – even for the relatively poor among us – is not primarily because of a lack of things.
We have been strictly commanded to provide for the poor, of course, even for the poor who are by historic standards richer than the dreams of avarice in a previous age. There are many kinds of poverty, however, and only a materialistic age would think that it’s just a matter of redistributing things – that “social justice” will somehow bring us real peace of heart. That’s just another humanistic delusion destined for perpetual frustration.
Being comfortable is of a piece with another great illusion of ours: being “safe.” There is no safety in this life. No safety of the kind we usually think of, at least, even in the Faith. We should never forget the passage in C. S. Lewis’ The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, where Susan asks whether Aslan (the Christ-like Lion), is safe: “Safe?” said Mr. Beaver. . .“Who said anything about safe? ‘Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
The whole point of being comforted is that the King comes to us all, because he’s needed by all, even the comfortable who lack a sense of their true need, as well as to those lacking many other things that we can never entirely supply: the materially deprived, the abandoned, the persecuted, the refuges of war, the empty-hearted, the poor in spirit.
So at Christmas, we do not indulge in comfortable fantasy. We know why the human race is in need of comforting and why that relief can only come from someplace other than ourselves. Christmas brings us to the most fundamental realism. And that is why December 25 will always be a day to remember, with gratitude, for all our race.
A Blessed Christmas and true Yuletide comfort to all our readers and friends from the staff of The Catholic Thing:
*Image: The Adoration of the Shepherds (or The Nativity) by Georges de La Tour, 1644 [Musée du Louvre, Paris]