Hugh Bates on the second of the Beatitudes and the nature of the Comforter’s consolation

‘Blessed are those who mourn they are to be comforted, ‘ consoled. It is the same word. Perhaps we should not think in the first place of private grief and being helped through it by a sympathetic friend or counsellor. Comfort, consolation, is a rich and loaded word. In St John’s Gospel, the Holy Spirit is the Comforter, the Paraclete. In the Candlemas story, Simeon is described as ‘looking for the consolation of Israel’ just as Anna and her friends were ‘longing for the redemption of Jerusalem.’

What matters is not just that somebody is in mourning, but what they are in mourning for. Simeon was mourning not for himself but for the captivity of Israel. He and Anna were identified in their sorrow with the exploited and the oppressed of their people, and with all that made their lives unfulfilled and incomplete. ‘Comfort ye, comfort ye my people. This is what Simeon had waited all his life to see. Now that he had seen it, he might depart in peace.

Mourning the world’s sins

A recent and classic example of mourning is that of the Archbishop of York who shaved his head and fasted in York Minster for a week at the time of the Israeli-Lebanese conflict, where he was joined by a great number of people. Like Simeon and Anna in the Gospel, he was not taking sides. Even less was he suggesting terms for a settlement. This was the only way open to him to express his (and our) profound sadness that we are part of a world in which such things can happen.

The Book of Common Prayer provides a sound framework for the discipline of mourning in its colourful penitential material. Nowadays this is often criticized as being far too rich for modern tastes. ‘And though at morn and evening prayer / Of erring sheep our tale is, / Such florid Tudor rhetoric / We take cum grano sails – so Fr S.J. Forrest.

Promise of consolation

But it is not florid Tudor rhetoric; it is the sober truth. ‘Ye that do truly and earnestly repent…’ Our mourning is heartfelt and genuine, but the ‘manifold sins and wickedness’ which we acknowledge and bewail are not so much our petty personal misdemeanours and peccadilloes but the grievous sins of the world and the society of which we are inseparably part. If we do not mourn for them, certainly nobody else will.

The catalogue is endless: the wanton exploitation of natural resources; the cut-throat competition of the global market; the expensive rubbish on sale in Vanity Fair; the cruelty of national, social and ethnic rivalries. It is a mess, and we seem to be locked into it, unable to escape. I cannot, apparently, even do my weekly shop in the supermarket without committing a sin against creation and grinding the faces of the poor! ‘The remembrance is grievous unto us. The burden is intolerable’ – or it should be. At least we can mourn and mourn bitterly, while the general public takes it all for granted. Like Simeon and Anna, we are called to mourn our captivity, sustained by the promise of consolation.

The activity of the Comforter is varied. He convicts the world of sin, of righteousness and of judgement. He takes the things of Christ and shows them to us. An example of the way that he operates is the Epistle to the Hebrews, an extended and densely argued ‘word of comfort’. The climax of the letter is the string of the examples of the saints of the old dispensation. Faithful though they were in their day, they have not received the promise apart from us. Supported by the evidence of their faithfulness, we are now to enter our own contest, looking towards Jesus in whom faith begins and ends. The Comforter is not given to administer anaesthetics or painkillers, but to equip people for fruitful mourning, in the certainty that their mourning is not in vain.