December 5, 1960 – December 23, 2022.
“Joy to the world” the old Christmas carol runs. With the festivities of the season and the gift-giving of Christmas, there is often a spirit of ‘joy’ in the air. The feel of the season puts us into the mood to celebrate God’s great gift of himself. We sing with confidence and elation: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come, let earth receive her king!”…
“I heard the bells on Christmas Day/ Their old familiar carols play, / and wild and sweet / the words repeat/ of peace on earth, good-will to men.”
But what if we do not feel like singing “Joy to the world?” What if, as for us today, these words do not glide off our tongues; the calls to ‘rejoice’, to ‘adore’, to have ‘joy’ stick in our throats. Instead of celebrating a miraculous birth, we mourn yet another death. The Lord is come? How? Instead of commemorating the return of the rightful Lord of creation, we weep yet another victim of the ghastly reign of death:
“And in despair I bowed my head; / “there is no peace on earth,” I said; / “for hate is strong, / And mocks the song / of peace on earth, good-will to men!”
And yet, the carols continue to be sung: “Joy to the world, the saviour reigns! / Let men their songs employ, / while fields and floods, rocks, hills and plains repeat the sounding, Joy.”… If the words of great carol mean anything, they must mean something at a time like this.
Perhaps our perplexity, our inability to grasp how we can sing “Joy to the world” in a world like this—actually points us to the central mystery of the Christian faith:
“And the word became flesh and lived amongst us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth.” (Jn. 1:14)
Here we reach the pulsing heart of things: the mystery of God wrapped in our flesh. The Maker of Mary sucking at his mother’s breast. God in danger of being killed by Herod’s men.
This ineffable mystery becomes a stumbling block, an affront to human reason’s self-sufficient attempts to understand. What sense does this make? God as a baby? The infinite in finite form? What is this talk of a virgin birth? Can this be defended? Can this be believed? As St. John Chrysostom wrote:
“The manner of his conception I cannot comprehend. Nature here is overcome, the boundaries of the established order set aside, where God so wills. For not according to nature has this thing come to pass. Nature here has rested, while the will of God laboured. O, ineffable grace…The Ancient of Days has become an infant. He who sits upon the sublime and heavenly throne now lies in a manger. And he who cannot be touched, who is without complexity, incorporeal, now lies subject to human hands.”
Where grace breaks in, human reason falls short. The mystery of Christmas calls us simply to believe, to look upon this baby in the straw and worship him as God.
And this is the real wonder of Christmas. Simply this: that God has come. God has broken the reign of sin and death. God has liberated us. God is with us in Jesus Christ. Whether we feel it or not, weather we believe it or not, it remains the case: “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” The Joy of Christmas is a joy that is rooted much deeper than human capabilities and conceptions; it reaches back into the eternity of the Trinity: From before the foundations of the earth God elected to be for us in Jesus Christ. (1 Pe. 1:20) The gift we are given at Christmas is the gift of grace, a gift as inexhaustible as it is incomprehensible.
What the mystery of Christmas points us to is that incomprehensible mystery that despite our god-forsakenness, Jesus Christ has become God-for-us. Despite our sin, Grace has entered in. Despite the wretched condition of our world, God is born into this wretchedness. Despite how things often look, God is at work. Despite our inability to feel joy, we are wrapped up in the “Joy to the world.”
“Then pealed the bells more loud and deep: / God is not dead, nor doth He sleep / the Wrong shall fail, / the Right prevail / with peace on earth, good-will to men.”
Our inability to comprehend God’s taking on flesh, is the good news that God saves us and our world despite our rebellion, fallenness and despair. When we reach the end of ourselves—the end of our faith, hope and joy—there we find that God has become our Hope. And although we cannot understand it, we believe this great mystery—putting our trust not in our own resources—but in the inexhaustible promises of God:
Behold! I tell you a great mystery. We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye… For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we shall be changed. For this corruptible must put on incorruption, and this mortal must put on immortality. When the corruptible puts on the incorruption, and the mortal puts on immortality, then shall be brought to pass the saying:
“Death is swallowed up in victory.”
“O death, where is thy sting?
O grave, where is thy victory?” (1 Cor. 15:51-55)
The featured image is called Mary and The Holy Baby Jesus by Stephen B. Whatley