Joy? Which joy?

These days, we often fail to appreciate lyrics. A catchy tune may follow us around, but who remembers the words? Or worse yet – we memorize traditional songs but fail to make a grasp at their deeper meaning. Given that last Friday is the Feast of the Epiphany, I thought I’d celebrate the revelation of the magi by dwelling on some lyrics that may be quite familiar to our Christmases, but carry some remarkable suggestions and offer potent reminders of the meaning of Christmas.

In the early years of the 1700s, English hymn-writer Isaac Watts wrote “Joy to the World” a reflection on the 98th Psalm. It begins like this:

Joy to the world! the Lord is come;
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare him room,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven and nature sing,
And heaven, and heaven, and nature sing.

The placement of this song in many Christmas services (which celebrate the nativity of Jesus, or his first coming) may obscure Watts’ original intention to proclaim the second coming of Christ, as Psalm 98 more overtly suggests. Verse 4 provides the obvious basis for our “joyful noise”: “Make a joyful noise to the LORD, all the earth; break forth into joyous song and sing praises!” The next verse of our carol affirms the resounding noise that shall be heard in this corporate celebration:

Joy to the world! the Saviour reigns;
Let men their songs employ;
While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat the sounding joy,
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.

The final verse reaffirms what has already been noted in each verse before – this is a return to ‘rule the world’ and this rulership conforms to the pattern already set by Christ’s humble birth. On epiphany we celebrate the majestic implications of God coming to dwell among us – that dysfunctional rulers will be put under new management:

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of His righteousness,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders of His love,
And wonders, wonders, of His love.

Christmas is a celebration of the strangely humble beginnings that God-among-us chose to begin with, but Epiphany  is a day to note the implications of God’s intimate presence among God’s creation: the return which is promised is not one from a distance, but back into an order of human life which is intimately known by the saviour who returns. Joy to the world indeed!

Jeremy Kidwell

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