Hear What Comfortable Words
While I am, for better or for worse, one of those strange creatures referred to as a “cradle Episcopalian/Anglican,” it was not until my seminary training that I recall hearing what are called “the comfortable words” from our liturgy. These four words from Scripture read between the absolution and the passing of the peace were omitted from the 1979 BCP, though they are permissible according to the rubrics, because much of the spirit behind that prayer book was doing away with anything that makes contemporary society uncomfortable. Who needs words of comfort when you can simply avoid discomfort altogether? But this omission is a tragedy, and one that I am happy our 2019 BCP has reversed, though whether liturgists know when, how, and why to use these comfortable words is another question. I am writing this letter to clarify the history, theology, and purpose of the comfortable words, so that St. Peter’s is a place where the comfortable words are understood, received, and digested as God’s holy words of comfort to nourish and sustain his people in their life in Christ.
The comfortable words are distinctive to the Anglican Prayer Book tradition, and reveal a great deal about the theology of Thomas Cranmer, the architect of the BCP, and much of what Anglicanism stands for and against as a tradition. Thomas Cranmer’s prayer book is a masterful joining together of different liturgies from early, medieval, and reformation Christian faith; but the words of comfort are without precedent in prior liturgies. These four passages from Scripture are meant to be read together, and not separately or individually, as many liturgists tend to read them for, I imagine, expediency. Cranmer organized these four words from Scripture, in precisely this order to be read together in precisely this order, to combat many of the errors of medieval theology that shaped the experience of Christians in England prior to the English Reformation.
For the average medieval English church-goer, God related to the clergy and the “religious professionals” such as monks and nuns in one way, and to the laity in an entirely different way. For the clergy and religious, God was friendly, warm, welcoming, and largely benevolent, for clergy were on God’s “good side.” On the other hand, the laity largely viewed God principally as a judge. God is watching and waiting for you to disappoint him.
This divide in thinking was most evident in church art and architecture. Church buildings of the time were divided by a screen (called a rood screen) separating the “chancel” with the altar, pulpit, and seating for clergy, from the “nave” with seating for everyone else. The art on the chancel side of the screen typically showed images of heaven, with a welcoming Jesus practically holding the door open for the religious professionals to walk right through. The art on the other side of the screen showed scenes from purgatory and from hell, with a stern, angry Jesus ready to cast you down into the fiery pits unless you prove you are worthy of different treatment. I am painting with very broad brushstrokes about medieval Christianity. It was not always like that, but this kind of thinking about God, Jesus Christ, and salvation was very prevalent, and very troubling to the
English Reformers like Cranmer.
With four simple sentences of Scripture, read loudly in the vernacular after the confession and absolution, in a format that illiterate people could memorize as a simple summary of Christian faith, Cranmer’s comfortable words were crafted to remedy tragic abuses of medieval Christianity. Simply put, these four words remind us that God relates to us principally on the basis of His love for us, not as a judge. God loves us.
“Come unto me all you who labor and are heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” These words from St. Matthew’s Gospel tells us that God does not love us from a distance, but has entered into the meaningless exhaustion that is human life without God to relieve our burdens.
Jesus Christ is not here to coach us through bearing the burdens of life ourselves, like a religious personal trainer. He is not our co-pilot. He has come to bear our burdens for us. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son, that all who believe in Him should not perish, but have eternal life.” St. John’s famous words remind us that the purpose of God’s coming to us was not judge or condemn us. Instead, Christ came to us that we miserable offenders would know God’s love in Jesus Christ, so that the distance between God and humanity would be forever bridged, that all creation would turn away from its way, and share in the very life of God.
“This saying is trustworthy and deserving of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners.” Here again, we hear with remarkable clarity the truth of the Christian Gospel that is so easily neglected and distorted, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners, not to condemn them. And finally, we hear this practical, pastoral word from 1 John, “If we sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous, and he is the propitiation for our sins, and not ours only, but also for the sins of the whole world.” Cranmer returns us to the courtroom, where so many Christians are told to find God. While God is found in the courtroom, He is not sitting where we expect Him to, He is not sitting in the judge’s bench, but in the seat reserved for a defense attorney, an advocate. What a scandalous and wonderful surprise, Jesus Christ is there with us, not facing us as our judge, but standing alongside us as our defender!
Pronouncing these words of comfort after our confession and absolution is one of the joys of Priesthood in the Anglican tradition. For as much as we might experience the true severity, weight, and burden of our sins, we hear all the louder these words of comfort to all who truly turn to Christ.
The Reverend Matt Rucker, Rector