Comfort Comfort Now My People Johannes Olearious (1611-1684) translated by Catherine Winkworth (1827-1878) revised by John Bell (b 1949)
Comfort, comfort now my people; speak of peace – so says your God. Comfort those who sit in darkness, burdened by a heavy load. To Jerusalem proclaim: God shall take away your shame. Now get ready to recover; guilt and suffering are over
Hear the herald’s proclamation in the desert far and near, calling all to true repentance, telling that the Lord is near. Oh, that warning cry obey! For your God prepare a way. Let the valleys rise to greet him and the hills bow down to meet him.
Straighten out what has been crooked; make the roughest places plain. Let your hearts be true and humble, live as fits God’s holy reign. Soon the glory of the Lord shall on earth be shed abroad. Human flesh shall surely see it; God is ready to decree it.
Olearius was a German pastor and hymnwriter. This hymn is based on Isaiah 40 and set to the wonderful tuen by Louis Bourgeois (1510-1561) Genevan 42. Bourgeois worked with Calvin to develop tunes to the Psalms which were, firstly, taught to the children who would then teach their parents. Elizabeth I of England was very disparaging about these “Genevan jigs” – no doubt todays’ tune was one she had in mind!
You can watch and download this video which was put together by Andy Braunston which contains this hymn and images to help churches reflect on it. It can be freely used in any church.
A rather more lively, jig like, rendition showing how the song could be sung is here.
Isaiah 40: 1-5
Comfort, O comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that she has served her term, that her penalty is paid, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins. A voice cries out: ‘In the wilderness prepare the way of the Lord, make straight in the desert a highway for our God. Every valley shall be lifted up, and every mountain and hill be made low; the uneven ground shall become level, and the rough places a plain. Then the glory of the Lord shall be revealed, and all people shall see it together, for the mouth of the Lord has spoken.’
If this hymn doesn’t make you want to dance, you may be singing it wrong! This is one of the gems I first met in Common Ground, and you can also find it in Hymns of Glory, Songs of Praise (the rebadged version of the Scottish Church Hymnary 4). Even if your church is a bit shy of singing in parts, a little investment in learning the catchy three-part harmony will help you make the most of this hymn in worship. Settings like this make a powerful contribution to worship – by singing the words ourselves rather than just hearing them we lodge them much more in our consciousness, and by setting them to a memorable tune the effect is even greater. You’ll also find these five verses from Isaiah set as the first recitative, aria and chorus of the Messiah, but I suspect most churches would find those rather more challenging to incorporate in worship!
These verses are quoted in Matthew, Mark and Luke’s stories of John the Baptist, and if you use the Revised Common Lectionary, they are set as part of the readings for the Second Sunday of Advent in Year B. I am struck by the emphasis on comfort, rather than the heavier emphasis on repentance in stories about John the Baptist (for example, the ‘brood of vipers’ in Matthew 3:7). They serve as a reminder that our God is a loving and forgiving God, not merely a vengeful God. Yes, we have things to repent of, but let us first remember God’s comfort. Is that a message we convey in how we and our churches are? Or are we perceived as judgemental and critical?
And even if we avoid making people feel guilty about who they are, do we place an overwhelming burden on people by making them feel that they should be able to sort out the world’s problems?
Lord, when you came as a powerless baby, you reminded us that the weak can overturn the certainties of the strong; that the poor can teach the rich about using our resources; that the leper can show the healthy how to live in the Kingdom. As we worry about our failings and insecurities help us hear the Prophet’s words of comfort and with hope in our hearts, live out that hope in the world. Amen.