Comfort Ye My People


It’s the subject of flash mobs in shopping malls, a cornerstone of church Christmas concerts, and a textbook in college classrooms. Perhaps no other choral work in history has achieved the mass popularity of The Messiah. Each year crowds flock to hear the gospel message proclaimed to them as the very words of Scripture are coupled with the melodies and melismas of George Frideric Handel.

The Messiah is traditionally performed during Advent or at Christmas concerts, but its first performance was during the season of Lent, a preparation for Easter. Of the work’s 53 choruses, recitatives, and airs, only six are explicitly about the birth of Christ. The rest of the work sweeps the entire counsel of Scripture, setting the stage with our need for a Messiah and Christ’s birth in Part I, proclaiming Christ’s death and resurrection in Part II, and announcing his glorious return in Part III.

Handel’s Messiah puts the Christmas story in context for us. Our placement of this oratorio during Advent may be perplexing at first, but I think it demonstrates that we instinctively know our longing is not aimless. The Advent season finds its fulfillment not just in a baby in a manger, but in a crucified, resurrected, returning King. The grand “Hallelujah Chorus” we sing to welcome Christ’s birth is how Handel responded to His resurrection. This is not the dichotomy we might firzst think, for one interprets the other.

And, so we turn to today’s selection – “Comfort Ye.” The whole oratorio is worth listening to in Advent, but this particular meditation on Isaiah 40 is chosen here because it opens the work, serving as the purpose statement for the Messiah’s coming.

Comfort ye,
comfort ye my people,
saith your God.
Speak ye comfortably to Jerusalem,
and cry unto her,
that her warfare is accomplished,
that her iniquity is pardoned.
— "Comfort Ye", Handel

The Messiah comes to a people who are in need of comfort. We are weary and heavy-laden, poor and needy. We live in a fallen world and we groan for the day of our redemption. We read about ISIS in the news, watch a genocide happen in the wombs of America, and fail to love each other well in our own homes. And in the midst of this pain, we don’t just long for deliverance – we long for comfort, for tears wiped away and for words of reassurance.

And the Messiah provides them. God’s people are to be told that their iniquity is pardoned, that their warfare is ended. The Messiah’s second coming will mark the end of war – ISIS, abortion, racism, oppression, anger, and hatred will come to an end. We long for that day.

But the Messiah’s first coming marked the beginning of our comfort. Our iniquity is pardoned. Our anger toward each other, the sin that is at the midst of the warfare around us – this has been atoned for. And as we wait for that day when the Messiah will return and finally wipe the tears from our eyes, our eyes turn back to the baby in the manger and we are comforted by His presence here in our midst. God is with us, Immanuel – the glory of the Lord has been revealed, and it will be again.

ISAIAH 40 - Comfort for God's People

  "COMFORT YE MY PEOPLE" - George Frideric Handel

Performed by the London Philharmonic Orchestra and Chorus.
      ST JOHN THE BAPTIST PREACHING    - Pieter Bruegel