I was flipping through the Advent section of my hymnal the other day, looking for something to ponder this week, and I came across this song with music and words going back to the 16th and 17th centuries. It’s not the type of music that we hear often – not something that gets recorded and arranged by all sorts of people at this time of year. But it has stood the test of time. It is a hymn that we often sing at my church during Advent, and I almost always, upon seeing it listed, have the immediate response of, “I don’t really like this one.” I’m not sure why because, inevitably as I sing or play it, I realize that this is far from the truth. It grows on me every time. It is both strangely joyous and thoughtfully peaceful. It is familiar, but not completely. It comforts with its unusual rhythms and considered words.
Comfort, comfort, O my people, speak of peace, now says our God.
Comfort those who sit in darkness, mourning ‘neath their sorrows’ load.
Speak unto Jerusalem of the peace that waits for them.
Tell of all the sins I cover, and that warfare now is over.
In the past couple of weeks, several dear friends of mine have been confronted by the deaths of loved ones. These moments can be filled with darkness and sorrow. Whether these passings are expected in old age or arrive far too soon, the emotions can be overwhelming. It is not surprising that music is often used as a way to mark these passages, and that it provides comfort to those who remain. Music is a remarkable thing. It opens space for us to face life’s challenges. It gives us these special rooms in which to mourn, to cry, to laugh and to celebrate.
As part of the preparation of the Advent season, this hymn acknowledges that things are not always easy and certainly never perfect. But within that imperfection, we have a role to play. We are reminded of our responsibility to the world right now, and our responsibility to a peace that has yet to arrive. Our preparation is about possibility. It is about giving comfort to those who mourn and speaking of the peace that we all crave.
Offering comfort and speaking of peace seem quite simple. But, I suspect, they are not actually that easy to accomplish. True comfort is given when we put ourselves aside and seek out what is needed by those living beneath their sorrows’ load. That can be very difficult – we all think we know what is best! We are rarely able to fill every need, but there is something about choosing to truly see what the needs are that is a humble kind of giving; a generous kind of comfort. And surely peace can emerge from this simply because it is a powerful thing to be heard. Especially within our sorrow.
So we continue to prepare. As we do so, listen for the needs that swirl around us. When we hear them we offer more than a moment’s respite – we offer space in which peace can be found; space in which peace can grow. And, we offer deep and meaningful comfort.