After the Confession and Absolution in the Service of Holy Communion follow The Comfortable Words. In my planning notes, this entry was to be entitled “The Comfortable Words (old & new)” which I can only assume was a joke to myself, as the comfortable words are always the same four quotes from Scripture. Both their function and their content are the same in the classical Prayer Books and in the 2019 Prayer Book. All that differs are what the rubrics say. Also, for the many people who are used to the Roman Rite, or the 1979 book, or similar liturgical revisions, the Comfortable Words may be a “new” feature of the liturgy to them.
This lovely graphic explanation of the Comfortable Words made the rounds on Facebook last month, and it’s worth sharing here:
I’ll let the commentary there stand for itself. What we can explore from a liturgical perspective is the question of what these “words” do, and how we use them.
Classically, all four of these statements were read by the priest after the Absolution, and were introduced individually: “Hear what our Lord Jesus Christ saith… hear also what what St. Paul saith… hear also what St. John saith…” But in the 2019 there is one introduction: “Hear the Word of God to all who truly turn to him.” This is matched with a rubric that states The Celebrant may then say one or more of the following sentences. Basically, this means that the rubrics allow us to skip any or all of these Words.
It is the recommendation of this Customary that you go all-or-nothing on this. The Comfortable Words have always been the same group of four ever since Thomas Cranmer first appointed them in 1549, and the logical progression they form together makes the omission of one or more a loss to overall coherence. Besides, if you just read one, then it runs the risk of just being a “random Scripture reading” floating out there, whereas if you read all four it makes a more bold and clear statement about the forgiveness of sins. The liturgy will survive without them, so either embrace them as a whole or leave them be entirely.
Their function is to stand as a sort of reassurance of pardon. Beyond the Anglicans and the Lutherans (the only two Protestant traditions that retain any sense of sacramentality of Absolution from a minister) an “assurance of pardon” is about all a minister can give, after a confession, and quoting the Bible is the best way to go about it. For us, then, who do have an Absolution pronounced, the Comfortable Words serve as a sort of biblical seal upon the priest’s word of absolution. This emphasizes that the ministry of the Church is grounded upon the authority of the Word of God written.
Priest, if your congregation already has a high view of Scripture, and a clear understanding that your ministry is derived therefrom, then the function of the Comfortable Words has been fulfilled whether you read them or not. This does not make them extraneous, however. The Word of God is living and active, arguably even more alive and active than you are. Therefore we should not treat the Comfortable Words as “extra add-ons”, but words of great significance and comfort. The rubrics permit us to skip them, but tradition and wisdom together exhort us to make regular use of them.
Anecdotally, I find myself using them throughout Advent, Lent, and Easter, and only occasionally reading them through the rest of the year. Like many priests, I feel pressed for time: so-and-so wants to get home on time for the Patriots game, the kids only have so much attention span left, and wasn’t the sermon already long enough? Perhaps there are good reasons for omitting the Comfortable Words from time to time. But as a norm, we probably ought to be reading them far more often than we omit them.