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“Oh, tidings of comfort and joy” goes the old Christmas carol. An interesting pairing of words. Joy–sure. That seems obvious: I’ve just had two staff members have babies–and joy isn’t even a big enough word for the arrival of these little long-hoped-for ones. But I might not have chosen “comfort” as joy’s companion. Maybe “wonder” or “peace.” That seems more Christmas-y.

But the more I think about it, comfort is exactly right. “Comfort” implies that we are in great need of consolation–we live in a world where there is much to “dismay” us (as the song implies with “let nothing you dismay”). There’s so much chaotic activity that we’re yearning to have “God rest [us] merry.” And what will make us “merry,” what do we want in our loneliness and alienation more than the comfort of presence? And when do we most have joy then when we feel the particular companionship of God–come to be with us.

The present of presence! Of course, Emanuel brings comfort and, through that comfort, joy.

My dear friend Jane Zwart composed the following prayer that beautifully frames this idea. May it bless you during your Advent reflections.


Lord,

You have loved us, and through grace you have given us eternal comfort and good hope. 

Out of love for us, Creator, you mixed the air until it was exactly suited to our lungs, and you dreamed up the trees that breathe oxygen back into the atmosphere. Yet we waste our breath on gossip, and we hazard the world you made to sustain us.

Out of love for us, Father, you made us in your image. You surnamed us. But we insist on striving to make names for ourselves.

Forgive us. Teach us how to accept your love. Cup our hands to receive the passion that drove nails through your son’s hands. And may his sacrifice change us again. May it banish the selfishness that rules our habits. May it chase off the timidity that keeps our hopes small. May it puncture the vanity with which we pursue our vocations.

Lord,

You have loved us, and through grace you have given us eternal comfort and good hope.

In your grace, Jesus, you let human beings stop your breath. You died because we made too little of your father’s love, because we distorted the image of God in ourselves, because we discredited it in one another. You died to save us from the hate that would damn us, and you died to rescue us from the finality of our own deaths.

In your grace, Christ, you made us your coheirs, your siblings. But we persist in our rivalries and squabble over that inheritance.

Transform us. Teach us to love one another. Lend us words to console those who grieve. Or maybe we should ask, instead, that you turn the quiet of our presence into a salve for those who mourn. Whatever the means, may we steady those who find their lives suddenly altered. May we bless them: the parents of newborns and the newly unemployed, those long shut-in by sickness and those just paroled.

Lord,

You have loved us, and through grace you have given us eternal comfort and good hope. 

To give us good hope, Holy Spirit, you ignited the early church. You were, for Christ’s first disciples, a pillar of fire in an uncertain time, and you light the way for us disciples, too. Yet we shield our eyes. We angle to protect our little campfires at the very moment when you would rekindle them with your breath.

To give us good hope, Comforter, you promise us solace. Yet we fret. We wring our hands instead of daring to help. Our outrage never takes a Sabbath. And, perhaps without realizing it, we dismiss shalom as naive. 

Calm us. Burn away our self-righteousness, and urge us toward what is right so that we may be gentler and braver. So that we may be more like Jesus.

O Lord, you have loved us.

May we love you, and may we love one another.

Amen.

Jane’s note: This prayer’s refrain–“You have loved us, and through grace you have given us eternal comfort and good hope”–was imported from Second Thessalonians 2:16.

Jennifer L. Holberg

I’ve taught English at Calvin College since 1998–where I get to read books and talk about them for a living. What could be better? Along with my wonderful colleague, Jane Zwart, I am the co-director of the Calvin Center for Faith and Writing, which is the home of the Festival of Faith and Writing as well as a number of other exciting endeavors. Given my interest in teaching, I’m the founding co-editor of the Duke University Press journal Pedagogy: Critical Approaches to Teaching Literature, Language, Composition and Culture (and yes, I realize that that is a very long subtitle). As an Army brat, I’ve never lived anywhere as long as I’ve now lived in Grand Rapids, a city I've come to love. I count myself rich in friends and family. I collect cookbooks (and also like to cook), listen to all kinds of music, and watch all manner of movies and tv shows. I love George Eliot, Jane Austen, Marilynne Robinson, Dante, E.M. Delafield, Tennyson, Hopkins, and Charlotte Bronte (among others). And I used to have a bumper sticker on my car that said: “I’d rather be reading Flannery O’Connor.” I don't have the car anymore, but the sentiment is still true.

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