THE comfort that a parish church can bring cannot be over-estimated. The similarity of the building, liturgy, and music from parish to parish is enough to allow people familiar with a parish church to drop into many others, if not most, and feel like citizens of the world — or, rather, of heaven, since these are heavenly places. Even newcomers — and there are many of these, even where Strategic Development cash has not been splashed — are welcomed, more often than not, with friendly faces and kind words.
Comfort these days has been downgraded, however. It is now associated vaguely with fitted carpets, padded seats, and central heating (not to mention what North Americans call euphemistically “comfort stations”). Nothing could be further from the mind of the writer of Isaiah 40: “Comfort ye, comfort ye, my people.” The passage, more closely associated with Advent (“prepare ye the way of the Lord”), makes clear that this is a text for troubled times: “Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem, and cry unto her, that her warfare is accomplished, that her iniquity is pardoned: for she hath received of the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.” This is a comfort that can be grasped in the most austere surroundings, when material trappings have been stripped away and the soul is assailed by something more painful than physical discomfort: the guilt that is associated with one’s own sinfulness.
There is, therefore, an unfairness about the term “comfortable Christians”. Those who use it seldom know about the personal sorrows and sufferings of congregation members, who are generally reticent about such matters. There is a danger, however, that this reticence helps to restrict God’s agency to a domestic level — as if everyone judged the power available to them by reading their household meter rather than by considering what was generated at the power station. The British are most admirable at this domestic level, namely the instant and sacrificial offering of their homes to Ukrainian refugees. They are less effective, perhaps, on a larger scale, when problems require collective solutions and political action.
A Holy Week spent surrounded by images of a country where domesticity has been blown apart by hostile shelling makes more precious the lesser forms of comfort which Christians enjoy in safer developed countries, and more vital the comfort that God offers to Christians everywhere. The lesson of Good Friday is that the cost of this comfort is high: the way of the Lord is the way to the cross. But Easter Day shows that death is defeated, even when on the scale that President Putin has inflicted it upon the Ukrainians. Isaiah’s prophecy is fulfilled in Christ the Good Shepherd, who “shall gather the lambs with his arm, and carry them in his bosom, and shall gently lead those that are with young”.