In the Church of England’s first Book of Common Prayer in 1549 Archbishop Cranmer set these words in the Mass immediately after the prayer of general confession and the priest’s absolution: “Hear what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him. ‘Come unto me, all ye that travail and be heavy laden, and I shall refresh you.’” (Matthew 11. 28) In the Authorized (“King James”) translation of the Bible published in 1611, in words that are repeated in Handel’s oratorio Messiah, the prophet Isaiah says (40. 1-2a) “Comfort ye, comfort ye my people, saith your God. Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem . . .” And in John’s Gospel (14. 26) Jesus in speaking to His disciples calls the Holy Ghost “the Comforter.”
What does this kind of comfort mean? A modern day dictionary definition of “comforter” is (1) a warm quilt, made by sewing two sheets together with feathers in between and (2) a person who provides consolation. But that’s not what Cranmer and the translators of the Bible had in mind. In England during the 16th and early 17th centuries words from Latin were being adapted; “Englished.” One of these was “comfort,” derived from two Latin words, cum fort—with strength. Cranmer was saying, “Hear what strengthening words our Savior Christ saith.” Isaiah in the Authorized Version of the Bible was saying, “Strengthen my people.” And the Holy Ghost who was promised to the disciples by Jesus would breathe into them strength--the power to discern truth and live for it.
All this is akin to the sense of the classic definition of treason as “giving aid and comfort to the enemy.” It’s not giving a warm quilt or a fuzzy bear or consolation. Treason is giving aid and strength to the enemy.
In our present circumstances we are certainly experiencing travail—painful labor--with medical pandemic and economic and social disruption as heavy burdens. We certainly long for consolation. The Church offers us that, and yet we also need something that reaches beyond consolation. The Good News is that the Church provides us with much more than just solace--not just a warm quilt or a fuzzy bear, but the strength of the Holy Spirit, given to us today. We receive that Spirit in order to be able to live and to discern truth in the midst of confusion and danger--to question taken for granted assumptions and to respond to our difficulties with courage and perseverance, loving God and our neighbor. Cranmer’s words in introducing Jesus’s words are more than an expression of consolation. They proclaim encouragement and hope; an assurance of the gift of God’s strengthening power for us and within us, individually and together.
“Hear what strengthening words our Savior Christ saith unto all that truly turn to him. ‘Come unto me all ye that travail and be heavy laden, and I shall refresh you.’”
The Rev. Charles Hoffacker is a retired priest of the Diocese of Washington