At Mass this morning, we sang one of my all-time favorite Advent hymns: “Comfort, comfort ye my people” (Tröstet, tröstet meine Lieben, trans. Catherine Winkworth; the tune GENEVA 42). Perhaps you know it? It was beautifully played and well sung. My joy was complete until I realized how the text had been altered.
Now, let me be clear. I can and do put up with a lot of alterations to hymn texts. I understand there are reasons. But when I saw that “tell her that her sins I cover” had become “tell of all the sins I cover” it brought me up short.
What were they thinking?
I can tell you what I was thinking: It’s like a health insurance plan. A lot of sins (though not all) are covered. Because we are telling of the sins God covers, it implies there are some that are not covered.
Even leaving aside the obvious cavil that we don’t “tell of sins,” (exomologesis is always about confessing God’s mercy) there’s something off here. The difference between telling someone that their sins are covered, and telling – in general – about all the sins that are covered is the difference between news and information.
A surgeon who says to his patient after surgery, “We got the whole tumor,” and a billboard that says “Our cancer hospital treats patients with all kinds of cancer” are not alike. In one case the message is of supreme importance to the person being addressed. It’s a matter of life and death. In the second, it’s information that may or may not come in useful.
My sense of the passage in Isaiah on which this hymn is based is that the prophet has salvific news to proclaim. That news is powerful because it is addressed to the one who needs it. The prophetic utterance to Jerusalem, promising comfort, peace, and remission of sins, transcends its original context not by becoming abstract but by being reimagined by succeeding generations as a message that is addressed to them. Ultimately, Christians heard this message being addressed to them in the coming of Jesus and we hear it today, in the Advent liturgy, in the same way.
I suspect we don’t understand the dynamic of this scripture passage as deeply as we need to. To go beyond the hymn, this brings up an evangelical issue. What is salvation? Do we even need it?
That Jerusalem may be referred to in scripture, or imagined in a hymn text, as a woman (“tell her that her sins I cover”) bothers me not at all. I do mind, however, blurring the message that one’s own sins are covered, because that’s the good news, and that’s important.