CONSOLATION IN THE NEW TESTAMENT
The Hebrew term for console-consolation comes from the root NHM which means primarily to breathe deeply, to sigh; its causative form means to make breathe, to take a deep breath in times of suffering or fear (Joseph and his frightened brothers in Genesis 50,21). Consoling means to help a person catch his breath when he is depressed, oppressed or crushed breathless. The Hebrew etymology emphasizes the physical and psychological aspect of consolation: to help breathe, to bring relief. The Greek words – parakaleo, paraklesis – place more emphasis on the aspect of encouraging, urging, supporting and comforting the suffering. Encouragement and exhortation express solidarity, help us conquer loneliness, bring us relief and console us.
The prophets proclaim consolation as a characteristic of the Messianic age (Is 40, 1); the Messiah brings consolation (Lk 2,25). It is essentially the end of the time of trial and the beginning of an era of peace and joy (Is 40,1f; Mt 5,5).
According to the New Testament the new world already exists in the old world; the Christian – at one with Christ – is consoled while still suffering (2 Cor 1,4-7; 7,4 and Col 1,24). This consolation is not accepted passively; it is simultaneously comfort, encouragement and exhortation (concepts expressed by the single Greek word – paraklesis). God is the only source of consolation (2 Cor 1,3.4) through Christ (2 Cor 1,5) and his Spirit (Ac 9,31); the Christian must share this consolation (2 Cor 1,4.6; 1 Th 4,18). The New Testament lists several instances of consolation – progress of Christian life (2 Cor 7,4.6); conversion (2 Cor 7, 13); Scripture (Rom 15,4). Consolation is the source of hope (Rom 15,4). The rich receive their consolation here on earth (Lk 6,24), while the beggar Lazarus is consoled in the bosom of Abraham (Lk 16,25).
[Note. I am taking this synthesis from a footnote in the Bible of Jerusalem at 2 Cor 1,3. The more I consult these notes (both marginal and introductory) the more I am amazed by the riches they contain. This is true of the Bible of Jerusalem and the TOB. They are veritable mines of biblical, theological and spiritual information if one has the patience to read all the biblical passages they reference.]
Some Aspects of Consolation
In John’s Gospel the term “consoler” is primarily applied to the Holy Spirit. John calls him the “paraclete, the defender, the advocate.” It is a legal term that refers to the man standing next to the accused to defend him (defense attorney) – certainly a role of consolation and support- (Jn 14, 16-17. 26; 15, 26; 16,7). If one thinks of the fierce antagonism early disciples faced when giving witness to Jesus in hostile world (John depicts this struggle as a legal trial) it is clear that only the support of the Divine advocate could guarantee survival. The Holy Spirit’s assistance comes to the fore when one understands truth (16,13) and gives witness to Jesus (15,27). In 1 Jn 2,1 the term “paraclete” is applied to Jesus.
Consolation – Tribulation (2 Cor 1,3-7)
We are familiar with this text – it is the second reading for the feast of Our Lady, the Consolata. The terms “console,” “consolation” occur ten times in five verses. Paul plays on the opposition between consolation and tribulation (trials, persecutions, temptations of the apostolate, tribulation is the penalty of birth, the tribulation of the eschatological era). There is no Christian or apostolic life without suffering – this is what it means to be associated with the passion of Jesus. Being associated with the passion is a guarantee of victory. The apostle can endure tribulation and console others because he himself is comforted, supported and consoled by Christ.
Thessalonians – a Letter of Consolation
The First Letter to the Thessalonians is chronologically the first of Paul’s letters that have come down to us. It can be looked at – in its totality – as a letter of consolation. Paul had to leave the newly established community in Thessalonika precipitously (Acts 17, 1-10) and he is concerned. He feels himself the mother (1,7) and father (1,11) of that community. He fears that suffering/tribulations will bring it down so he sends Timothy from Athens to comfort the community (3,7) and gather information. When Timothy joins Paul at Corinth he brings good news about the church in Thessalonika and Paul feels comforted (3,11). The whole letter is marked with the theme of consolation. Paul, although concerned, tries to console and support the young community by sending Timothy. The Thessalonians’ perseverance in the faith is a source of consolation for Paul.
(I would suggest you read the whole third chapter for an understanding of Paul’s concern and affection for Thessalonika and how they were a comfort to him).
In 1 Thess 4,3-18 the teaching on what happens to the dead is consolation (4,18); it overcomes the despair (4,13) of those without hope. This is why Paul can conclude, “console each other with these words.” The missionary is an agent of consolation when he proclaims the kerygma of faith and Christian hope.
Barnabas, a Man of Consolation
The apostles gave Joseph of Cyprus a new name – “Barnabas, man of consolation who instills courage” (Acts 4,36). This etymology may be somewhat far-fetched but the name fits the first-generation Christian described in the Acts.
He makes his first appearance when he is gives the community the proceeds of a field he sold (Acts 4,36-37). It is he who introduces Saul to the Jerusalem community (9,27). When Jerusalem learns unexpectedly of the birth of a Christian community in Antioch among the pagans it is Barnabas who is sent to find out what is happening (11,22). As an open-minded and forward-looking man he “encourages” the young community to carry on and then accomplishes what is probably the most important act of his life: he goes to Tarsus to seek out Saul (who had separated himself somewhat from the others). He brings Saul back to Antioch. In this community Saul will undergo a year of training before he begins his great missionary journeys (11,25-26).
He is Paul’s companion on the first of these journeys (Acts 13-14). Along with Paul Barnabas will be a witness to the faith of the pagans at the Council of Jerusalem (15,2.12). Barnabas’ final appearance in the Acts is his argument with Paul about Mark (15,37-39). The “man who encourages” wants to give Mark a second chance – this principle/life-pattern effects his friendship with Paul.
He is a man detached from possessions, completely at the service of the community; attentive to others - especially the isolated. Barnabas sees the good in others and fosters it. He is a balanced man who seeks understanding – but he does not retreat when it’s a question of giving Mark a second chance. Are not these the traits of a missionary of consolation?
- Thinking about Barnabas, a man of consolation and encouragement, what aspects could inspire my own missionary life today?
- Consolation – tribulation (2 Cor 1,3-7): what is the basis of consolation in the midst of the trials of the missions?
- Consolation – exhortation: am I convinced that encouragement, support and appreciation are an important part of my life-style vis-à-vis the community?
- Consolation – evangelisation: are the proclamation of and witness to the Gospel a source of consolation for me?
- Consoler – advocate: in my efforts to promote justice do I experience the strength and consolation of the Spirit?
Fr. Mario Barbero