Comfort and Joy

One of my favorite Christmas memories was a Christmas feast I attended at St. Edmund Hall, Oxford, while a graduate student there. There was a cracker on the chair and all the other trappings of a traditional English Christmas, but it was also magical for an American LDS student to attend this Oxford feast that was so thoroughly Anglican. The college pastor was there and gave the prayer. The tables were lit with candles and everyone, including myself, was in white-tie and academic robes.

The Spirit was there too. I confess, it surprised me. After the feast, we had some fun with crackers and such things, everyone else partaking freely of the alchohol that had made the meal so expensive. Then, we were led in song, perhaps it was by the JCR president, I can’t remember exactly. Everyone stood and sang a rousing and speedy rendition of "God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen." What I observed was a group of people not openly religious but who nevertheless had a deep belief in–if anything–the mere myth-as-tradition of the existence and meaning of the Lord Jesus Christ. It is actually difficult to explain. Many, perhaps most, of these people, other undergraduate and graduate students from financially well-off homes across Britain, the Empire, and beyond, were certainly not religious in their daily lives, and almost certainly did not have any kind of ever-present belief that I have always enjoyed in my life. But this night, they sang this carol with gusto–and it seemed to me that they meant it. My wife and I had to look at each other and do a bit of a reality check. We, of course, enthusiastically participated in what to us was a rich and uplifting tradition.

"God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen" has long been a favorite Christmas carol of mine. It is also one of the older carols that is still frequently used. It was first published in 1833 and has been a staple for worshippers at Christmas ever since:

God rest ye merry, gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay
Remember, Christ, our Saviour
Was born on Christmas day
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

In Bethlehem, in Israel,
This blessed Babe was born
And laid within a manger
Upon this blessed morn
The which His Mother Mary
Did nothing take in scorn
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

From God our Heavenly Father
A blessed Angel came;
And unto certain Shepherds
Brought tidings of the same:
How that in Bethlehem was born
The Son of God by Name.

O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

"Fear not then," said the Angel,
"Let nothing you affright,
This day is born a Saviour
Of a pure Virgin bright,
To free all those who trust in Him
From Satan’s power and might."
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy
O tidings of comfort and joy

That third verse in bold first struck me powerfully while a missionary in Schwerin, Germany. We were in a special meeting in Rostock on the Baltic Sea. It was bitter cold outside; the snow was deep. We sang this carol on a whim at one of our meetings that cold night. The third verse reinforced for me the power of the message that the angel brought that day to the shepherds. It is difficult to imagine how wonderous that must have been. The Messiah announced, to these individuals, in a visitation they could not thereafter deny. It was not the first or last time angelic messangers would be sent to communicate between God and man, but it was certainly one of the most important.

On this Christmas day, we have been fortunate enough to partake of the Sacrament at the same time that we celebrate the Savior’s birth. The Sacrament represents the essence of what the Savior came here to do. To celebrate his birth is to express gratitude for his condescension to the posterity of Adam. Approximately six hundred years before the birth of Christ, Nephi pondered on the mystery of this condescension as he was given a vision by God of things to come:

13 And it came to pass that I looked and beheld the great city of Jerusalem, and also other cities. And I beheld the city of Nazareth; and in the city of Nazareth I beheld a virgin, and she was exceedingly fair and white.

14 And it came to pass that I saw the heavens open; and an angel came down and stood before me; and he said unto me: Nephi, what beholdest thou?

15 And I said unto him: A virgin, most beautiful and fair above all other virgins.

16 And he said unto me: Knowest thou the condescension of God?

17 And I said unto him: I know that he loveth his children; nevertheless, I do not know the meaning of all things.

18 And he said unto me: Behold, the virgin whom thou seest is the mother of the Son of God, after the manner of the flesh.

19 And it came to pass that I beheld that she was carried away in the Spirit; and after she had been carried away in the Spirit for the space of a time the angel spake unto me, saying: Look!

20 And I looked and beheld the virgin again, bearing a child in her arms.

21 And the angel said unto me: Behold the Lamb of God, yea, even the Son of the Eternal Father! Knowest thou the meaning of the tree which thy father saw?

22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.

23 And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul. (1 Ne. 11:13-23.)

I can add the support of my own experience to this that this message is "the most joyous to the soul." I believe the message is true, but that does not explain why it brings joy, to be honest. That remains a mystery.

But the message, in its fundamentals, is simple, and focusing on it elevates our celebration of the birth of Christ far above the mundane traditions of gift-giving, home decorations, and even holiday cheer. Jesus himself has boiled his Gospel down for us to its essential elements:

13 Behold I have given unto you my gospel, and this is the gospel which I have given unto you—that I came into the world to do the will of my Father, because my Father sent me.

14 And my Father sent me that I might be lifted up upon the cross; and after that I had been lifted up upon the cross, that I might draw all men unto me, that as I have been lifted up by men even so should men be lifted up by the Father, to stand before me, to be ejudged of their works, whether they be good or whether they be evil—

15 And for this cause have I been lifted up; therefore, according to the power of the Father I will draw all men unto me, that they may be judged according to their works. (3 Ne. 27:13-15.)

In these verses, Jesus describes the unconditional aspect of his Atonement — that because of his sacrifice, all human beings will be resurrected for the purpose of standing before the Father to be judged in the flesh according to their works. Jesus continues with a point that underscores the importance of his birth and mission:

16 And it shall come to pass, that whoso repenteth and is baptized in my name shall be filled; and if he endureth to the end, behold, him will I hold guiltless before my Father at that day when I shall stand to judge the world.

17 And he that endureth not unto the end, the same is he that is also hewn down and cast into the fire, from whence they can no more return, because of the justice of the Father.

18 And this is the word which he hath given unto the children of men. And for this cause he fulfilleth the words which he hath given, and he lieth not, but fulfilleth all his words.

19 And no unclean thing can enter into his kingdom; therefore nothing entereth into his rest save it be those who have washed their garments in my blood, because of their faith, and the repentance of all their sins, and their faithfulness unto the end.

20 Now this is the commandment: Repent, all ye ends of the earth, and come unto me and be baptized in my name, that ye may be sanctified by the reception of the Holy Ghost, that ye may stand spotless before me at the last day.

21 Verily, verily, I say unto you, this is my gospel; and ye know the things that ye must do in my church; for the works which ye have seen me do that shall ye also do; for that which ye have seen me do even that shall ye do[.] (3 Ne. 27:16-21.)

Because of the birth that we celebrate this day, we can become clean and enter into the Father’s kingdom. May these tidings of comfort and joy enter our hearts this day and remain with us throughout the coming year.

4 Responses to Comfort and Joy

  1. Mark IV says:

    John, Thank you.

    I had an experience much like what I think you are describing yesterday when we sang Oh Come, All Ye Faithful. Faithful, joyful and triumphant.

  2. J. Stapley says:

    Delightful post, John. Thanks.

  3. manaen says:

    Thanks for sharing this experience.

    “22 And I answered him, saying: Yea, it is the love of God, which sheddeth itself abroad in the hearts of the children of men; wherefore, it is the most desirable above all things.
    “23 And he spake unto me, saying: Yea, and the most joyous to the soul. (1 Ne. 11:13-23.)
    “I can add the support of my own experience to this that this message is ‘the most joyous to the soul.’ I believe the message is true, but that does not explain why it brings joy, to be honest. That remains a mystery.”

    Here’s an answer to that mystery.

    Many try to fill their emptiness by chasing false answers like prestige, possessions, power, or the many addictions. These tease with a sensation of approaching joy and but they never deliver sufficiency, so the pursuer continues harder and harder trying to get enough. However, we cannot get enough of what we don’t truly need so these pursuits lead to increasingly desperate, and always futile, attempts to find fulfillment.

    The one answer — what we truly need — is love. Love settles the soul and makes life sweet. It fills the holes left empty by the self-centered falsities we embrace. Addictions are substitutes for love and love is what frees the addict. My own experience with love’s liberating power is described here. This freedom requires help from others because you cannot give yourself the love you need; it is dependent upon relationships with others.

    God’s love is the most healing. The verses noted above say specifically that it is “the love of God” (v 22) that is “the most joyous to the soul.” (v 23) I believe that is because his love is the most reliable, constant, and unconditional love, as well as the most empowered to bring healing and growth. Addictions’ attraction is their constancy; the addict can trust them to deliver their sensation each time. God’s love is the one love that also is constant – and it brings growth instead of the substitutes’ injury and death. As Elder D. Todd Christofferson noted, “once you have felt your Savior’s love for you, even the smallest part, you will feel secure, and a love for Him and for your Heavenly Father will grow within you.”

    I agree with your comment that the message of Christ’s atonement is the most joyous to the soul in the sense that it is a manifestation of God’s love, “God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten Son” (John 3:16). This base of love is found throughout our doctrine:
    · Love is the heart of both of Jesus’ greatest commandments
    · Christ (God’s love manifested) as the sure foundation in Helaman 5:12
    · D&C 121:34-46’s guidelines to using the priesthood can best be summarized as “love others and use this power to bless them”

    “And the remission of sins bringeth meekness, and lowliness of heart; and because of meekness and lowliness of heart cometh the visitation of the Holy Ghost, which Comforter filleth with hope and perfect love, which love endureth by diligence unto prayer, until the end shall come, when all the saints shall dwell with God.” (Mni 8:26)

  4. john f. says:

    Thanks for your perspective manaen. That goes a long way toward explaining that mystery.

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