Christmas music is playing everywhere now. It’s on the radio, in the stores, and in our Sunday morning worship gatherings. Some are new songs, and some have been around for decades. Do you ever really listen to and think about the meaning of the lyrics to any of them, especially the ones you have sung since you were a child, or do you just sing along out of familiarity without thinking about what they mean? This week, a friend and I were discussing one such old Christmas carol.
Have you ever thought much about the phrase “tidings of comfort and joy” that we sing at the end of each verse of “God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen”? The phrase “tidings of joy” is easy. At the birth of Jesus, the angel announces, “Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people” (Luke 2:10 KJV). I see tidings of joy, but where are the tidings of comfort? Are we even promised comfort? Are we ever promised a time when we can put up our feet and experience a life of ease?
Jesus seems to promise just the opposite. He says we must carry a cross in order to be His disciple (Luke 9:23), we must be a servant (Matt 20:26-28), and we must give up everything to follow Him (Luke 14:25-35). So where are the words of comfort and ease…the tidings of comfort? Is "tidings of comfort" an appropriate phrase for this Christmas carol? I thought I would investigate this dilemma.
To quote my favorite movie, The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I don’t think it means what you think it means.” That seems to be the case here with the word comfort. I found a blog entry from December 2005 entitled “Tidings of Comfort and Joy,” written by an Episcopal priest. He references Isaiah 40:1-2, “Comfort, comfort, my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and proclaim to her that her hard service has been completed, that her sin has been paid for, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins,” and explains the word comfort this way:
The original meaning of comfort is “to make strong” –to fortify. It is about taking heart and being encouraged, being strengthened with resolve and given hope that there is better to come. Comfort is not about feeling warm and cozy, it is about facing the future with trust in God and hope in one’s heart, no matter how bad things might have been in the past, or how they might appear at the present. It is a call to be prepared and strong for the good of the days to come…
That makes much more sense than tidings of ease, prosperity, and warm fuzzy blankets! I looked up what he said about the history of the word comfort and he is right. The Oxford Dictionary says comfort is “from late Latin confortare ‘strengthen’, from com- (expressing intensive force) + Latin fortis ‘strong’. The sense ‘something producing physical ease’ arose in the mid 17th century.”
I love this old/new definition of “tidings of comfort.” Words of strength and encouragement for the days to come are certainly “tidings of comfort” that many of us can use because we are not living in a world of ease and luxury. There are so many among us who are suffering physically or emotionally, or who have to endure days of uncertainty, grief, or darkness.
The birth of Jesus…the arrival of God incarnate…the presence of Immanuel, brings us not only “tidings of joy,” but also “tidings of comfort” – not the warm fuzzy kind but the strengthening, encouraging, fortifying kind of comfort. He may not have us living in the lap of luxury here, but He does want us to be strong and courageous. He wants us to live in faith, not fear. Be encouraged by these tidings of comfort.
Though you have made me see troubles, many and bitter, you will restore my life again; from the depths of the earth you will again bring me up. You will increase my honor and comfort me once more. I will praise you with the harp for your faithfulness, my God” (Psalm 71:20-22a NIV).
 http://www.oxforddictionaries.com/definition/english/comfort (accessed December 9, 2015).