“Joy to the World” – A Christmas Eve Meditation
Christmas isn’t always easy for the children in our midst. This year, for the first time, many won’t be traveling to see grandparents. Others will be receiving food baskets and feel their parents’ anxiety about where they will be living next year. Some, with plenty of resources, will feel worried about whether the pandemic will strike their family, and when they can be kids again, playing sports, going to Disneyworld, having over nights with friends. This year some will children celebrate Christmas still separated from their parents and incarcerated on the USA borderlands. Others, such as the descendants of one of the first Christian communities, have fled Syria and are now in refugee camps. Still others grieve the loss of a parent or grandparent due to COVID and miss a parent stationed overseas.
It had been a difficult year for the little boy. Just five years old, he had experienced the impact of his father’s unemployment and his mother’s illness. Kind people brought food baskets to supplement their dwindling reserves; there were few toys and no special outings; his mom was tired, living in the aftermath of her cancer treatments. That year, there were few smiles, and less laughter around his home. Christmas was coming, but there was little holiday cheer. He didn’t even know if they’d have a tree, things were so tight financially.
It was Christmas Eve and they went to church as they always did. (Remember those days – just last year.) He was glad to sit between his mom and dad as they sang the carols – “Joy to the World,” “O Little Town of Bethlehem,” and “Silent Night” His parents even let him hold the candle this year.
As they drove home, he had no great expectations. He had been told that Santa might just bring a few simple gifts, maybe a toy and a sweater.
They turned the corner, parked in the driveway, and opened the door. Wow! A lit tree, a pile of presents, and the smell of cookies and turkey. The little boy was overwhelmed as he stammered, “My heart is filled with joy.”
My heart is filled with joy!
Two thousand years earlier, the shepherds watched on a cold night. Sentries, protecting the sheep from wolves. Another long night, low wages, looked down upon by the well-educated and affluent, and only more of the same to look forward to in the years ahead – hard work, poverty, and time away from hearth and home. And, then out of nowhere, a burst of light, a strange figure, illuminating the darkness and they were afraid. But as they shook in terror the angelic figure spoke, “Do not be afraid…I bring you tidings of great joy…you will find a child, sleeping in a stable…but this little child will change everything for you and the whole world.”
And suddenly the sky was bright with angelic singing, and their hearts were filled with joy!
In this dark season of pandemic, poverty, and political misconduct, in which night appears to swallow up the day.in which busyness and the demand of work wear us down and the perfect gift – this year ordered online – eludes us. Our land seems to have lost its moral compass as leaders rant and bully.
Amid the chaos and confusion, we need to hear the message of angels, we need a Christmas Eve surprise, we need something unexpected to change our lives and the world, and to inspire us to be better and more compassionate people We need a lighted tree and an angelic chorus.
This season of light can’t fully be appreciated without recognizing enveloping darkness. And, yet Christmas is coming, and angels appear with words of comfort and joy.
The darkness cannot win and the darkness will not win as long as we remember the light and become light-bearers ourselves; as long as we listen for angels and a baby’s cry. Tempted to take the low road, we need to let our light shine and follow the better angels of our nature.
Each Christmas, we sing the hymn, “Joy to the World,” and it is a hymn for this very moment in time. “Joy to the World, the Lord is come.” Right now, amid all that frightens us, all that we are anxious about, the impact of the past and concerns about the future, God is here, and light triumphs.
There was nothing idyllic about that first Christmas, in the messy stable with a houseless family, living under the thumb of heartless potentates, and there may be nothing idyllic about our Christmases.
But, there is an angel…there is a star…there is the birth of a child, a witness that love wins and hope is on the horizon. And, the child in us joins the shepherds and magi and says “My heart is filled with joy!”
Bruce Epperly is Pastor and Teacher at South Congregational Church, United Church of Christ, Centerville, MA, on Cape Cod. He also serves as a professor in the D.Min. program at Wesley Theological Seminary. He is the author of over sixty books, including THE WORK OF CHRSTMAS: THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS WITH HOWARD THURMAN; MYSTICS IN ACTION: 12 SAINTS FOR TODAY; I WONDER AS I WANDER: THE TWELVE DAYS OF CHRISTMAS WITH MADELEINE L’ENGLE; PIGLET’S PROCESS: PROCESS THEOLOGY FOR ALL GOD’S CHILDREN; and THIN PLACES EVERYWHERE: THE 12 DAYS OF CHRISTMAS WITH CELTIC CHRISTIANITY.