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Joy to the world (and hold the bah humbug)

‘Joy to the world!’ the old carol goes. ‘The Lord is come.’

What is joy, though? Just religious jargon for ordinary happiness? As I was walking down Old Amersham‘s high street at dusk last week, with Christmas lights and paraphernalia on show, a Santa cavalcade drove through to the tune of ‘We Wish You a Merry Christmas’. Close by, a random shop owner emerged to see what was going on. As we wandered past, she looked us in the eye as if we would be sympathetic to her Scrooge-like misgivings and declared, ‘Bah, humbug!’

I get how she feels. After quasi-lockdown since March, ongoing isolation from friends and family, and her business barely staying afloat during what should be her busiest season, what’s there to be ‘merry’ about? What meaning could Christmas really have for her? What difference could another baby entering the mess, two millennia ago, really make?

Well, if the biblical accounts can be trusted — which, after decades spent academically studying them, I’m happy to say they can — then God taking on flesh and moving into Old Bethlehem makes all the difference in the world. It’s truly light piercing the darkest of nights, the most brutal of plagues, the harshest of quarantines, the most draconian of regimes, the deepest of recessions. It means that, like the medieval writer and mystic Julian of Norwich, we can declare: ‘All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.’

Happiness is happenstance, shifting with circumstance. Like optimism, it’s a subjective state of mind that flows with the next dopamine rush and ebbs with the next disappointing bank balance or medical diagnosis. Joy, though, is grounded on a trustworthy promise that God’s got this, God’s got you. He’s been there too and he loves us too much to leave things as they are. He’s with you, present every rough step of the way.

And one day, when we least expect it, angels will accompany the real Father Christmas’s drive through the darkness, lights shining and music pumping. And the sky will ring to the tuneful declaration: ‘Joy to the world, the Lord is come! Let Earth receive her King!’

The best part is this joy isn’t just about the ‘not yet’ – it’s also about the ‘now’. It’s an active joy, a joy that we can live as well as feel, a joy that we can take with us and share with the people on our frontlines. God calls each of us to be ‘joy to the world’ right where we are. By doing your daily work to his glory. By taking the time to drop round and check on that isolated neighbour. By sharing the hope you have in Christ with that friend who just joined their first online church service.

Hold the humbug. This season, exchange happiness for joy – the joy that Christ embodied 2,000 years ago, and that he calls us to embody on our frontlines today. Even as I’m sure many of you reading this feel you’re bottoming out, as I do, know that Jesus’ birth is not a religious placebo you pop once a year with mulled wine when long evenings set in. Rather, it’s a genuine cause for celebration and action the whole year round – because God, Emmanuel, is with us.

Christ has come, Christ has risen, Christ is coming again. The cosmic lockdown is lifting. Love will win. So get stuck in. Embrace joy – and share it with the people God has put you alongside, wherever you are this Christmas.

 

Dave Benson
Director of the Centre for Culture & Discipleship

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Dave Benson

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