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Tidings of Comfort and Joy - St Luke's Christmas Angel and the Merry Gentlemen

Comfort and Joy


The origin of a phrase

Comfort and Joy is a phrase forever linked to the Christmas story. Yet for many people, the source is confused. Do you have an image of shepherds 'abiding in the field, keeping watch over their flock by night', suddenly startled by an angel bringing tidings of comfort and joy? If you do, you are not alone. But the phrase itself is not Biblical.

St Luke, the beautiful writer, the poet among the Apostles, is the only one who mentions the shepherds. But Luke's angel never speaks of comfort:

Luke 2.10

And the angel said unto them, Fear not: for, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people.

In fact, the phrase seems first to have come from the 15th Century English Christmas carol, 'God rest ye merry, gentlemen'. The third verse tells Luke's shepherd story:

From God our heavenly Father
A blessèd 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...

And though the tidings of comfort and joy form the refrain to every verse, this is the point where the false link is established. Comfort was not any part of the original package. That was no accident. Whether you believe the story or not, St Luke remains the master story-teller. He chose his words with care. He wrote Joy into posterity and Comfort got tacked on fifteen hundred years later.

Are you sitting comfortably?

Then I'll begin, by taking a hard look at the cuckoo in the nest - comfort. What exactly does it mean? In truth, it means very little. It has no qualities of its own and is almost entirely defined as the absence of its antithesis, discomfort. Discomfort can be very real and can take many different forms. A room can be too hot or too cold. The light can be too bright or too dim. The atmosphere too dry or too humid. The bed too hard or too soft. Shoes too tight, traffic too noisy, and so on. In almost every case, we increase comfort by removing a discomfort or irritation. And having removed it, we forget it. Comfort is not a positive. It is simply an absence of negatives. Taken to the limit, it is oblivion. Abraham Maslow understood this well. He never thought of achieving comfort as an end in itself; he realised that we eliminate or overcome specific discomforts merely as a prelude to higher activity.

The rot sets in when we pursue comfort beyond a reasonable level. Having eliminated major discomforts, we may start focusing on more and more trivial irritations, sometimes even purely imaginary ones. We become malcontents, dissatisfied and implacable. And this is no surprise, because that is exactly the state the peddlars of unnecessary luxury goods want us to be in. You can't sell a new three piece suite, carpet or car without first sowing seeds of dissatisfaction with the old one.

What about Joy?

C.S Lewis entitled his autobiography 'Surprised by Joy'. It was a punning title of course, because Joy was the name of his wife, who came into his life quite late (and very dramatically) when he considered himself a confirmed bachelor. But the earlier part of the book explores the overwhelming feeling of joy, and the way it comes always as a surprise, a realisation, at unexpected moments, perhaps while walking, reading or listening to music. By inclination, Lewis was disposed to interpret these moments as evidence of the Holy Spirit (I'm simplifying here). Be that as it may, most of us will recognise the phenomenon of inexplicable intense gratitude for life that can catch us off guard. That is joy, pure joy. It cannot come from comfort alone.

It is my thesis that joy gives purpose to life. It is of no commercial value because it cannot be bought and sold. I can buy a guitar or flute and take some pleasure from the purchase, but joy is only to be found in playing it (and not every time!) I have had some of my most intense joyous moments while hill-running, an experience that can by no stretch of the imagination be called comfortable. Lewis's joy equates very closely to Robert Pirsig's 'Quality' (Zen & the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance) and his conclusions are similar - it comes from total involvement in the instant and completely forgetting the self. It comes from activity (mental or physical), not passivity. There are as many paths as there are people. Believe no-one who claims to have the way.

So, here are my tidings: great joy is there, for the taking. It has nothing to do with comfort. And as Luke's angel said: it is for all people.

Thank you for reading!


Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on January 20, 2011:

Hi zelbud - I'm familiar with that, but the fact remains that Luke's account doesn't mention comfort.

zelbud on January 20, 2011:

I just wanted to point out that God the Holy Spirit is called the "Comforter" and the Bible speaks that we in Christ have "comfort of love". Comfort is not an absence of pain or suffering, but the presence of One who understands and feels our pain in the midst of our troubles and difficulties. We are comforted knowing He is with us through the good times and bad.

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on July 20, 2010:

Hi Daniel - glad you enjoyed this one. I am from Scotland, by the way, where UK spelling is the norm. The z is the US spelling.

Daniel J. Neumann from Harrisburg, Pa on July 20, 2010:

Hello Paraglider,

Well, I have to say I like this hub. I’m also a fan of C.S. Lewis. I’d like to say mean things to you right now, because as much as I hate to admit it, it stings a little when I hear I’m egocentric from someone I respect. I’m starting to respect you more now.

I did find one error, however. A simple spelling mistake: realisation should be realization---under “What about Joy?”

It would also benefit the reader for you to define joy in contrast to happiness and pleasure.

Scroll to Continue



Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on November 10, 2009:

Hi Maita - with Christmas approaching, maybe this hub will rise again? I have a Ramadan hub that is popular for 4 weeks in the year then lies dormant for the next 48 :)

these occasional feelings of joy are to be treasured as if each one is your last. Because it just might be - who knows? Thank you for finding this one!

prettydarkhorse from US on November 10, 2009:

"It is my thesis that joy gives purpose to life. It is of no commercial value because it cannot be bought and sold. I can buy a guitar or flute and take some pleasure from the purchase, but joy is only to be found in playing it (and not every time!)"

I like that sentence very much Dave, it covers all, and this hub is inspiring! Thanks.

You have a good day Dave, Maita

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on May 08, 2009:

James - that derivation is true, but it's arguable whether the 16th Century songwriter would have known it, especially as these old English songs were by and for people who did not understand church Latin. The word appears often in the bible, but not in Luke's story of the shepherds. Thanks for the read.

Countrywomen - apologies, I missed your comment until now :)

James A Watkins from Chicago on May 08, 2009:

Comfort is a word with Latin roots that meant "To strengthen much" (the word "fort" is in the same family meaning "strong").  It is as old as the hills of England to seek strength from the Lord—or the Comforter—and this gives this word a long tradition of special meaning in Christianity, particularly in hymns, as well as in Judaism, as evidenced by the Psalms. 

countrywomen from Washington, USA on March 28, 2009:

WOW!! Good elaboration of "comfort" and "joy". I could so relate to the hill experience since the joy of trekking to the top of the hill and the view is worth every bit of "uncomfortable" trek. Another similar distinction I see is between "fun" and "happiness". As my father says his most cherished moments are when he is among his loved ones (family/best friends) and now that's all he craves for.  Thumbs up for a feel good hub.

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on March 04, 2009:

Thanks Gracy, and welcome!

gracy.bonsu from United Kingdom on March 04, 2009:

I like your Hub very, very much. Good difference between Joy and Comforts. It tells comforts is for luxuries and Joy is for needs.

I bookmarked it

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on March 03, 2009:

Hi Amanda - Comfort is maybe a broader term - it can be physical, psychological, spiritual, etc. Consolation is on the psychological wing of comfort. Yet consolation too is the abating of a dis-ease. It can bring peace (mental comfort?) Joy, for me, still stands apart, almost as a reward. Thanks for visiting :)

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on March 03, 2009:

Jewels - that is very much in line with my understanding of Joy, that it comes from effort and dedication to the action (which can be physical or cerebral). Also it can't be guaranteed. Some days there's just no gold in the pan!

Amanda Severn from UK on March 03, 2009:

I liked Tatjana's idea of putting consolation and comfort together. For my own part, I always assumed the comfort in that carol was about empathy and fellowship, the knowledge that the wounds and scars left by hardship and loss might be salved and healed.

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on March 03, 2009:

Hi VioletSun - that's an interesting interpretation. I suspect that Luke, coming from his time and place, wouldn't have been thinking along such Eastern (or new age Western) lines, but it certainly adds another angle. Thanks for the read :)

Jewels from Australia on March 03, 2009:

To me Joy is a 'Higher' feeling, a higher sense. Someone has said Joy is a choice, which to many would seem a silly statement. Yet it is by no means through comfort that you experience it. Engaging in the world, using your will to be the best you can be is one sure way of being in Joy, so perhaps it is activated at will. Also having a standpoint that is receptive to the state of joy means being open to it. Joy is a beautiful state to me and something I aspire to retain.

VioletSun from Oregon/ Name: Marie on March 03, 2009:

 Couldn't Luke have been talking about  enlightenment? Joy as being a state of awareness were we are no longer identified with the self?  We are often reminded to look within, to find the heaven within; this gives us a permanent state of joy. My s/o and I are friends with two enlightened men, who don't know each other, are not religious, but are deeply aware and spiritual, both live in a state of joy, while they live their mundane lives of loss and gain. Just some thoughts.

Intriguing hub- my type of conversation. :)

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on March 03, 2009:

Hi SweetiePie - thanks for that :) I am certainly interested in how and what people believe, and possibly because I don't hold to any religious belief myself, it helps me to see them more clearly. But not all would agree!

SweetiePie from Southern California, USA on March 02, 2009:


I think you would have been a good comparative religions professor since you are well research and enjoy this subject.

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on March 02, 2009:

I could be wrong, but 'living' and 'sentient' don't have to overlap. It's conceivable that sheep ticks are sentient creatures, conscious of their own existence and capable of experiencing joy. But if I had to bet on it I'd bet against them ;)

ColdWarBaby on March 02, 2009:

Who knows what other living creatures feel? I find it hard to doubt, when watching bear cubs, lion kits or wolf pups at play, that joy is unknown to them. Methinks what truly produces that joy is irrelevant.

Comfort would seem to be very subjective. Joy on the other hand is something that can’t really be manipulated and acquired at will. You take it as it comes and bask in it while it lasts. You can’t cling to it like a security blanket.

Nevertheless, isn’t it possible that a security blanket might bring joy on occasion?

Thank you for another fine example of the workings of your elegant mind Paraglider.

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on March 01, 2009:

There speaks a true empath - where even a sheep tick is fair game!

Sheila from The Other Bangor on March 01, 2009:

True. ALthough it pains me to think that sheep ticks cannot feel joy.

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on March 01, 2009:

Thanks Jerilee - maybe if you and I say it is required reading it will come to pass. Or maybe not ;) Thanks for the read.

Teresa - perhaps the ability to experience joy is the single thing that most distinguishes us from the sheep ticks?

Sheila from The Other Bangor on March 01, 2009:

Sorry -- self-involvement got the better of me, there. Joy is a wonderful transcendence of all states, all other feelings, all responses; it does not negate them, it merely makes them irrelevant while it lasts, and the more we can tune in to that joy, the more we realize the utter meaninglessness of most of our self-involved perceptions of just about everything else.

Thanks for letting me ponder this a while. And joy to you, dear Paraglider.

Sheila from The Other Bangor on March 01, 2009:

The heck with the shepherds, I can remember many's the day in the freezing cold rain myself, waiting for a bus, laden down with schoolbooks or groceries, hands numb, crying (although thankfully minus the sheep ticks). Couldn't the announcing angel have brought them a cup of hot bovril each along with the good news?

Jerilee Wei from United States on March 01, 2009:

This should be required reading, I got a lot out of it and will bookmark it lest I get too comfortable and forget . Very interesting hub!

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on March 01, 2009:

Sciantel - yours is a Christian view, but I am not a Christian. For me, the Bible is part of my cultural heritage, just like Chaucer and Shakespeare. The hub is written from that standpoint and from the thesis that joy comes from involvement and gives meaning to life. But everyone must find their own way through life, and their own source of joy, be it music, art, philosophy or physical exertion. I very carefully say not to believe anyone who claims to have _the_ way. Thanks for commenting :)

Sciantel on February 28, 2009:

Comfort is very real. Jesus said: I AM SENDING THE COMFORTER, meaning the Holy Spirit, after He was to go back to Heaven. The Spirit of God is the very essence of comfort. Therefore comfort exists because the Spirit of God exists. Lean the Bible. (John 14:16) Also referred the Holy Ghost as our Helper. Comfort also means to be helped, which we are. 1 Thessalonians 4:18 says it beautifully:Therefore comfort one another with these words. : That, in essence is the meaning of the Angel who came with great tidings of comfort and joy. So the people could be comforted. It comforts me to know I have been saved by the Redeemer.

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on February 27, 2009:

Thanks Elena - I might add a postscript to clear that up :)

Elena. from Madrid on February 27, 2009:

Aha, Paraglider, I think I read better 'non-attachment'. Makes I should got that when reading the hub, now I'm thinking this is a case of 'a little lost in translation" :-)

Dave McClure (author) from Worcester, UK on February 27, 2009:

Hi Tatjana - I agree that comfort can be mental or spiritual as well as physical. Yet in such cases it is still the removing of a pain or anguish, or, to use an old word in its original sense, the easing of a dis-ease. Thanks for commenting :)

Robie, welcome - I'm fairly careful (like Luke) not to say too much. I'd suggest joy gives meaning to life but wouldn't go so far as to claim it is _the meaning_ of life. Surprised by Joy was made into quite a good film, though it concentrated more on the Joy/Lewis personal story than on the earlier philosophising.

Ntathu - thought is good. So is food. And open eyes best of all :)

Hi Benjimester - thanks for the visit and appreciation. CS Lewis was a very fine mind and though I don't share all of his views, I always enjoy revisiting his writings.

Teresa - if Luke had had his angel offer comfort to the shepherds, it would be a mean-spirit that would begrudge them. Discomfort was their lot: outdoors in all weathers, hot, wet, cold, probably covered with sheep-ticks (not fun!) And even in 15th Century England, life for most was very rough. But in recent times, we have created an apotheosis of comfort as a right and an end in itself, and this is to our discredit. I also enjoyed Tatjana's contribution which adds a new layer to the discussion. As to why I was thinking of Christmas, this hub grew out of a brief conversation on one by CWB, which reminded me that I'd been meaning to explore this area.

Aya - That's a good motto. I'll try to remember it next time I'm feeling too comfortable :)

Elena - I'm always reluctant to talk in Freudian terms about the self, the ego, etc, because I don't think these ideas correspond to anything real. Probably a better explanation would have been total involvement with the present while giving no thought to the outcome (non-attachment, Krisna style :)

Elena. from Madrid on February 27, 2009:

Hi Paraglider!  Your take on comfort is great, described as absence of discomfort. I like the notion of joy coming from activity and comfort from passivity. I'm not sure I forget the self (should I say 'myself'?) in moments of joy, though.  Right now, I have the feeling my self is very present in moments of joy.

Great read!

Aya Katz from The Ozarks on February 27, 2009:

Paraglider, great hub. One of my mottos is: "The Joy is in purpose; the purpose is Joy!"

Like the others who commented, I always took "comfort" in that line as "consolation", though that's probably an anchronistic reading.

Self-forgetfulness and joy go together. I agree.

Sheila from The Other Bangor on February 27, 2009:

I like Tatjana's mention of "consolation" as an adjunct to "comfort"; I know, in the first instance, that "comfort" is (in the Christmas carol) is a filler in the line -- and as an end in itself, is as empty as you define it to be (many of us are content with mere "comfort" to the detriment of any real meaningful engagement in spiritual joy or moments of "grace" in the even older sense of being "touched" by grace, as, say, Caedmon was in Bede's account of his attainment of grace by means of the gift of song).

So yes, comfort alone can be devoid of spiritual involvement -- if I understand you correctly -- and the joy, in C. S. Lewis's definition, is that wonderful culmination -- a brimming over of joy in a moment of pure grace (whether it be a moment of understanding, realization, bliss, ah-ha!, or whatever) -- which implies a higher connection to whatever it is that gives us spiritual meaning in our lives.

But again, Tatjana's mention of consolation is a lovely addition to the Christmas carol -- a lovely wish for a moment of good tidings -- be ye consoled in your hearts, and comforted, in this moment of good news and joy. In this particular context, then, it's a worthy addition, while not an end in itself? Be ye comforted and consoled BECAUSE of the joy?

Sure, it could come in moments of discomfort of one sort of another, and not necessarily be incompatible. But I'm splitting hairs. Loved your hub. Why are you thinking of Christmas? And, incidentally, the idea of Comfort and Joy reminds me of the eponimous film with Bill Paterson, and makes me think of the Great Western Road in Glasgow, for some reason. I did love living in Glasgow.

Thanks for the thought-provoking hub, as always. T.

Benji Mester from San Diego, California on February 27, 2009:

I love this line about comfort: "Taken to the limit, it is oblivion." That's really insightful. That's cool that you brought up C.S. Lewis. He talked a lot about things like joy, and nostalgia, and sometimes melancholy. This is a really good hub.

Ntathu from SE London on February 27, 2009:

Excelle- ummm-lots of food for thought. Another eye-opener article. Thx Nx

Roberta Kyle from Central New Jersey on February 27, 2009:

Hmmmm Paraglider, Joy just might be the meaning of life, I agree-- but then I'm not sure:-) In any case the moments of sudden pleasure and gratitude for living I experience watching a sunset, listening to music, or just tasting a particularly good piece of chocolate cake certainly make the journey worthwhile as does the smile of a small child, the flight of birds, or the wagging tail of a puppy:-)

I love your notion of St. Luke as the poet of the apostles-- I never thought of him that way. I like the image. I also am a CS Lewis fan--another rather poetic Christian writerand I'm glad you brought him up. I read Surprised by Joy years ago and loved it.

Another delightful hub, Paraglider-- full of comfort and joy:-)

Tatjana-Mihaela from Zadar, CROATIA on February 27, 2009:

This is the best possible explanation how "comfort" and "joy" differ. I like the ecplanation, I like your Hub very, very much.

But, when word "comfort" is used in this verses, it has completely differnet meaning: "consolation, bringing relief (from suffering). When the soul suffers, relief from pain is very welcomed gift.

Kindest regards.

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