The Christmas Carol ends that phrase with “Joy”.
The Heidelberg Catechism appears to end it with “Misery”! Or does it?
I’ve been spending a lot of time in this text in recent years — the Heidelberg Catechism is a 16th century summary of the Christian faith, and the most widely used Reformed theological standard worldwide. I served on a national committee of my denomination, the PC(USA), from 2008 to 2012 working to resolve problems with our current translation of it. At the end of that process I wrote a small book on the catechism in the “Being Reformed” adult education curriculum series, inviting the churches to study the proposed new translation as their representative elders prepared to vote on it. Now I’m spending a couple weeks working my way through the catechism with about forty seminary students.
Heidelberg starts out with the most winsome personal question: “What is your only comfort in life and in death?” The answer is Jesus, of course. We are comforted in this troubled life because we belong to Jesus “body and soul, in life and in death.” It is all about comfort in this Catechism — we explore all the main teachings of the Christian faith with a focus on how these things are good news, helpful guidance in our daily living, as we walk with God and serve in the world.
So why, then, after one very comforting question and answer, does Heidelberg say the first big thing I need to know as a Christian is “how great my sin and misery are”? And it doesn’t hold back on the misery. The first of three major sections of the catechism is straightforwardly called “Part 1: Misery”. It includes a pretty blunt assessment of our sin, our guilt, and our broken human nature that results.
First time readers frequently indicate that they would prefer the Christmas carol. Give me “Comfort and joy” any day of the week.
A closer reading shows that misery is not the end of the story. The section on misery is by far the shortest of the three — it is dwarfed by the section on “Deliverance” or the way God solves our miserable situation in Christ, and by the section on “Gratitude” which is how we live out our new relationship to God in Christ.
For the Heidelberg Catechism, in order to get a clear sense of how great the deliverance is, you need to know what we are being delivered from.
It is counter-cultural to say so, but following the Catechism’s lead and taking a good hard look at our lives is worth doing. And it will probably start us out with a bit of misery. We have loved God with something less than all our heart, soul, mind, and strength. We have loved our neighbor with something less than the kind of compassion and patience and generosity we show ourselves.
These are not just two commandments by which we are judged guilty. These two commandments describe the actual source of joy in life. We were created by God to live with every fibre of our being spent in the contemplation and love and service of God — and only if we do so will be be living in what Augustine would call the blessed, or happy life.
If we are able to notice our lack of the blessed life — our misery, in Heidelberg’s term — then, we can see in full contrast the wonder of being delivered by Christ. And we can begin to live in gratitude day by day and minute by minute.
I’m curious: How do you draw “comfort” from your own faith? How do you think “misery” can be a helpful step on the journey?