Martin J. Dooley, a fictional Irish Bartender from the Bridgeport section of Chicago was quoted as saying, in 1902, by his creator Finley Peter Dunne, that the newspaper, among other things, “comforts th’ afflicted, afflicts th’ comfortable.” Eighty-five years later Martin E. Marty, in “Religion and Republic: The American Circumstance” would reiterate that quote, without the Irish brogue, and attribute it to the work of the Church through the roles of Priest and Prophet, “one comforts the afflicted; the other afflicts the comfortable.” Some 2000 years earlier a couple of young parents with a new child would take him up to the temple to do what what customary and an old man, Simeon, who was told to go to the temple where he would see the Lord’s Messiah, would take the child of these young parents in his arms and pronounce a rather disturbing prophetic word about this Jesus. “This child is destined for the falling and the rising of many in Israel.” Their experience was anything but customary. It would go beyond anything these young parents might have expected from their visit to the temple.
We will see in the coming stories, once this child grows up, that comforting and afflicting are some of his stock in trade, and those he afflicts are none too happy about those whom he chooses to comfort. For young parents who place their hopes on a long and prosperous life for their child, these would be disturbing words, as they should be for us.
Where do we see ourselves in the story? Where should we? Are we comforted or afflicted? Is it possible to be a little of both? When modern day prophets talk about the privilege that some have simply because of race, are we offended or chastised, comforted or afflicted, caused to rise or to fall?
As the Church, we both speak prophetic words of comfort and affliction as well as hear prophetic words of comfort and affliction and we are called to be anything but customary, status quo. It is not something we can do alone. That is why we create community so together we might look at how we are living and discern a path forward, toward what is unexpected, uncustomary and redemptive for the comfortable and the afflicted both.