Text: Matthew 1:18-25
I recently read this quote: “Comfort the disturbed and disturb the comfortable.” I had heard it often repeated in a slightly different form, “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.” It was first used by a man named Finley Dunne about a hundred years ago. Finley Dunne was an American humorist, newspaper editor, and writer from Chicago. He is best known for his 1898 published work, Mr. Dooley in Peace and War, a collection of his nationally syndicated Mr. Dooley sketches. In his sketches, the fictional Mr. Dooley expounded upon political and social issues of the day from his South Side Chicago Irish pub. (See the Pullen young adults are simply following in Mr. Dunne’s footsteps.) Maybe some of our chronologically advantaged members remember Mr. Dooley sketches. Dunne’s sly humor and political acumen won the support of President Theodore Roosevelt, a frequent target of Mr. Dooley’s barbs. The sketches became so popular and such a litmus test of public opinion that they were read each week at White House cabinet meetings. The best historical records indicate that Mr. Dunne first used the quote “comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable” in 1902 as he described the job of the newspaper.
Some of you might enjoy hearing the full quote. He wrote:
Th newspaper does ivrything f’r us. It runs th’ polis force an’ th’ banks, commands th’ milishy, controls th’ ligislachure, baptizes th’ young, marries th’ foolish, comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable, buries th’ dead an’ roasts thim aftherward.
For some reason that quote made me think of Bill Finlator. It sounds exactly like something he would have written. “Comfort the afflicted, and afflict the comfortable.”
Those words have been the backdrop this year as I have reflected on the story of the birth of Jesus—the Christmas narrative that we move closer to on this Fourth Sunday of Advent. Comfort the afflicted. Indeed, the Christmas story is a story of great comfort to those who are lost and lonely and afraid, who are the forgotten, the poor, the homeless, the hungry and the stranger. AND, it is a story that at its core, afflicts those of us who are comfortable this time of year and all year—those of us who are secure, warm, well-fed, known to someone else, who have enough and then some, and are on the inside of all the systems that work to our advantage.
The birth of Jesus is such a tender, sweet story. A baby is born, and the pictures we hold in our mind’s eye of him wrapped in those swaddling clothes make us feel warm and secure. Babies do that for us. They remind us of new life, of hope, and of a future. And who doesn’t have a soft spot for those young parents, Joseph and Mary, both courageous and yet humble. We are comforted and inspired by their willingness to live into the mystery of their dreams and of angel’s voices. And whose heart is not touched by Joseph’s response to the angel’s visit when he declared that he would not abandon his young maiden in her time of need. Even that long, cold journey to find a safe place to give birth is somehow comforting too. It reassures us that we can make it through the hard moments in life. That God does provide and that God is with us. And that stable. As smelly and scratchy and uncomfortable as it must have been, there is a sweetness about that scene too. The animals gathered alongside the humans to welcome this child, this special child into the world. In that moment there was peace on earth. The warmth from the rays of that bright star that settled over the manger offers comfort like no other light. And then the appearance of the magi—that band of gypsys and star-gazers—who dropped everything to bring the newborn babe those special gifts. Again, who is not comforted by the thoughtfulness and tenderness of their presence? The story of how Jesus was born is a tender, sweet story.
This year it has felt important to me to take some time to simply rest in the tenderness and sweetness. To remember the comfort it offers—the comfort of swaddling a baby in your arms. To think about the times you have said “yes” to God as Mary did. To remember the Joseph moments in your life when you had the courage to live into the unknown and trust something larger than yourself. To be reminded that God is with us. I have, this advent, taken great comfort in remembering the people who have journeyed with me through the hard places of life. And who have brought precious gifts to me to mark special moments.
This story is a great comfort to those of us who are safe and warm and full. And on Christmas it is right to feel the comfort of the story. But I imagine it offers an even deeper level of comfort to those who are suffering the afflictions of poverty, of being a stranger in a foreign land, of hunger and homelessness—those who like Mary and Joseph are struggling to make ends meet, who wonder from day to day if there will be room in the shelter for them or their families, or food on the table, or some generous people who will take the time to come bearing gifts for their precious child at their birth. This story comforts the afflicted in a way that I imagine is hard for most of us to recognize.
And so we are led to read the Christmas story also from the perspective of the second half of the quote, “afflict the comfortable.” I don’t think it is unfair to say that most of us sitting in this room are the comfortable. We are warm and safe. We have enough food and we have a place to lay our heads down at night. We can go to the doctor if we are sick and to the dentist if we have a toothache. Some of us may struggle month to month to pay the bills but the majority of us have the resources we need to take care of ourselves and our families day in and day out. By the world’s standards, we are the wealthy even if in our own country we are not.
The story of the birth of Jesus brings into focus, maybe more than any other biblical narrative, the truth that this baby was born to afflict the comfortable. From beginning to end, the birth narrative teaches us that this baby was born into the world to bring down the powerful and lift up the lowly, to fill the hungry with good things, to care for the poor, and welcome the stranger. It teaches us that God comes in unexpected places through the least likely people in surprising ways. It reminds us that God lives on the edges, working through those who just might make us feel uncomfortable in their need.
As you go into this week, I encourage you to read the story of Jesus’ birth with both your heart and mind. Allow it to comfort you in your places of affliction, and to afflict you in your places of comfort. I have found great solace this advent living into both—allowing the story to both comfort me and afflict me. You know for many of us, we have a hard time holding in tension opposite truths. The story either has to comfort the afflicted or afflict the comfortable. But the truth is, the entire Jesus narrative does both and there is no place where that is more real than in the story of how the birth of Jesus took place.
The tension we hold in the Christmas story, the tension that is inherent in the narrative of how Jesus’ birth took place, is that the cradle and the cross are the same story. One rests on the other. This Christmas let the tenderness and sweetness of the nativity wash over you. Be comforted by the divine generosity to enter the human experience and by the human response to welcome a child. And in the same moment, be brave enough to also let it push you out of your comfortable place of enough; to let it agitate you sufficiently that you let it break your heart for the babies who aren’t being safely held, for the families who will sleep in their cars this Christmas Eve, for the strangers who haven’t been welcomed inside. I truly believe that the Christmas story is meant to break our hearts, to make room for the baby who becomes the Christ within us.