Comfort, Discomfort Ye My People

“The best part of the discomfort you’re feeling right now is the comfort you’ll feel after you come out of the pose.” – Rebecca, yoga instructor, December 10, 2014

com•fort verb \ˈkəm(p)-fərt\ : to cause (someone) to feel less worried, upset, frightened, etc. : to give comfort to (someone). Late Latin confortare to strengthen greatly, from Latin com– + fortis strong

If we remember that the verb “comfort” means to do something “with strength”, then we might better reconcile the discomfort that accompanies comfort – indeed the discomfort that is actually necessary before we can experience comfort.  Advent, as we’ve been reminded in several different ways, is a time of comforting promises and of discomforting reminders to “pay attention”, “stay awake”, and “repent”.

* * * * *

Several hymns that we sing during Advent represent a time in music history, during the 15th and 16th centuries, when the freedom of chant was giving way to the chains of metered music – i.e. music organized in regular groups of 2, 3 or 4 beats, and a movement away from singing many notes to one syllable (melismatic chant) to something closer to one note per syllable (syllabic settings). Think of hymns from that time period, O come, o come Emmanuel (Hymn 56) or Creator of the stars of night (Hymn 60). There is still some give and take in the flow of musical phrases, still some distance from the even structure of an 18th century hymn like Come, thou long-expected Jesus.

One more Advent tune coming out of that 16th century move from chant to measured music is Hymn 67, Comfort, comfort ye my people. Two long beats, followed by three quicker ones. I find great beauty in music’s irregularities, much as we might in life’s irregularities! Originally composed for Psalm 42 in the Genevan Psalter (hence the tune name, PSALM 42), it strikes me as a bit too lively a tune for that mournful Lenten psalm, “Like as the hart desireth the water-brooks, so longeth my soul after thee.” For all its uneven gait, there is a dance within this tune, and it begs to be sung with joyful abandon. If you need any proof that it is a worthwhile tune, know that Bach used it in seven of his cantatas.

The words are from Isaiah, that prophet of hope, who prophesied that Judah’s exile in Babylon was almost over. The advent of a new kingdom, one bringing the comfort of peace, is at hand. We remember that this season of Advent opens up two paths of comfort – the comfort felt by a baby held in his mother’s arms, and that of a promised second coming when we will all be held by our God. But what about now? Where do we find comfort in this place, right now? We have an immediate need for the kind of comfort that brings the peace of God into our daily lives, and I think we find it by paying attention, staying awake, and by repenting. It takes strength after all to repent – to admit you were wrong, to let go of addictions and prejudice. And there is comfort to be found in paying attention to those many, many moments of hope, graciousness, generosity and beauty that surround us every day.


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