Column – Joy to The World?
Published 11:50 am Thursday, December 21, 2023
The most published “Christmas carol” in North America isn’t supposed to be a Christmas carol at all. True to the form of so much we Christians do on this continent, along the way we took something that was good, sacred, and meaningful as is and made it fit our desires, rather than its intended use. With “good intentions” I’m sure, but not without consequences. I believe that while we gained an honored tradition that brings happiness, we may have lost the intended and purposeful value the songwriter had for the lyrics.
While I don’t think for a second that I’ll ever attempt to have it removed from any worship service, that does not change the fact that Isaac Watts wrote it based upon a specifically Christian interpretation of Psalm 98 (which is not written as a Christian text), and the lyrics discuss the “Second Coming” of the Christ. It was not written about, nor do the words reflect, the story of the nativity of Christ.
The song was written to say that when Christ comes again, as we Christians strive to make happen as the living body of Christ, there will be great joy. Joy to the World! All of it. The terrestrial and the superterrestrial. So much joy that we must make room in our hearts for it.
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How do we make room for that? It seems to me that “no more let sins and sorrows grow” and “make the nations prove the glories of his righteousness, and wonders of his love, and wonders of his love” are a good start.
Watts’ lyrics tell us that the joy we so desperately want with Christ also comes when Christians act in the world as Christ would have us. Along with it must also come the acts of holding to account our systems, governments and selves. We must account for our individual and communal work in ending the “growth of sins and sorrows” of the world. Those things that separate ourselves and others from God’s love, and those things which bring harm to bodies and spirits.
While there may be joy for you and I this Christmas, in my experience, much of it is temporal. Why not make it more than that? Sustainable, celestial and purposeful. We can move it beyond the highly produced worship services and ballooning credit card debts. We can make it a lasting joy when we do the work that brings “Joy to the World” by ensuring children in war-torn Gaza, Ukraine and other places (The Geneva Academy is currently monitoring 110 armed conflicts) no longer have to cup their hands in the rain for a drink of life-sustaining water or dress the wounds of war. When migrant travelers, like the holy family, can always, and at the very least, find shelter, food and love. When we love our neighbors, and when we define our neighbors not by geography but in our hearts.
We can truly sing “The Lord is come, let Earth receive her King” when we bring the “wonders of His love.”
Do you want to be a gift to Christ this Christmas? Travel the spiritual and physical journeys you need to so that people can recognize you, and your community, as a wonder of love.
Merry Christmas! The Lord is come!
The Rev. Jason Stump is pastor of Oakland Christian United Church of Christ in Suffolk. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org