Joy to the World?

Christmas Day is over, but according to the church calendar, the Christmas season continues until Epiphany (January 6). I doubt that Advent will ever again be observed in our culture as a solemn time of prayer, meditation, and repentance in preparation for Jesus’ coming into our world. That kind of Advent and the Twelve Days of Christmas are things of the past. Nevertheless, we could still ponder the significance of Jesus’ birth and celebrate God’s flesh-and-blood solidarity with Her creation at least a few days after December 25. 

One of the most beloved Christmas hymns is “Joy to the World” written by English minister and hymn writer Isaac Watts (1674-1748). Watts was a prolific hymn writer and, in addition to “Joy to the World,” also authored well-known hymns like “When I Survey the Wondrous Cross” and “O God, Our Help in Ages Past.” “Joy to the World” is customarily sung to the tune “Antioch” composed by George Frederic Handel. It’s one of my favorite Christmas hymns. But there is only one problem: “Joy to the World” is not referring to Jesus’ birth. It is not a “Christmas hymn.”

The hymn is based primarily on Psalm 98 and secondarily on Psalm 96 and Genesis 3. It is a hymn celebrating what is erroneously referred to today as Jesus’ “second coming.” (The term “second coming” is not found in the New Testament. It is a translation and interpretation of the Greek word parousia which means “appearance or presence.”) Isaac Watts was referring to and celebrating the time when earth and heaven are finally one; when “the lions and the lambs of this world” can snooze together without predation or fear; when all suffering ends and all injustices are made right; when there is cosmic peace and reconciliation; when every tear is wiped away by God’s own tender hand and every part of creation finds its home in the presence of the Creator. 

There is a lot of garbage out there interpreting and predicting the “second coming” of Christ. Much of that nonsense misunderstands the nature of symbols and metaphors. Yes, the Bible and the church teach that there will be a consummation when God’s will shall be done on earth as it is in heaven and when all things and all people will be reconciled to each other, themselves, creation, and the Creator. I believe in such a consummation. But exactly how or “when” it shall occur is beyond our understanding. The early church saw Jesus’ resurrection as the “first fruits” of this cosmic resurrection and consummation and simply trusted that in the end, God’s love will win. It’s enough to trust that love will have the last word bringing justice, healing, and mercy. 

If Isaac Watts was referring primarily to the Parousia (which most interpreters of “Joy to the World” maintain), then his hymn would also make a good Easter hymn. In fact, it could be a hymn of hope throughout the church year. However, there is a profound reason why we are not at fault in singing “Joy to the World” at Christmas. In Christian theology, there is the concept of protology (not proctology!) which refers to the origin of all things and God’s fundamental purpose for Her creation and humanity. What was God’s intention and purpose in creating this world? What was God’s goal for creation? Eschatology is concerned with a study of ends (as in “means and ends”), the final consummation of God’s original purpose in creating this universe and humanity. So, in a very real sense, all protology has within it the seed of eschatology. All protology is a nascent form of eschatology. The purpose of God begins with creation, continues with all the joys and sorrows, triumphs and defeats, births and deaths in history, and finds its fulfillment when God’s goals and purposes are fully realized. 

I would suggest for any age, and especially for our own time, trusting that love will win, justice will prevail, compassion will heal, and reconciliation will be complete and lasting is absolutely necessary if we are to know joy and have the energy and inspiration to cherish this world and work for those things which make for peace.

Now, all this may sound esoteric and irrelevant. But I would suggest for any age, and especially for our own time, trusting that love will win, justice will prevail, compassion will heal, and reconciliation will be complete and lasting is absolutely necessary if we are to know joy and have the energy and inspiration to cherish this world and work for those things which make for peace. Our own nation is reaping the bitter harvest of greed, racism, intentional and manipulated ignorance, stupidity, violence, and idolatrous individualism. We could possibly lose our democracy, our decency, and our spiritual moorings We seem hellbent on self-destruction as so many of our citizens follow (in a cultish manner) a lying, amoral, and dangerous demagogue. Too many of our politicians have become political whores selling themselves to the higher bidders. Like Pilate, they cynically ask, “What is truth?” while embracing and telling lies which they believe will be to their political advantage. Too many of our citizens want to rewrite history to cover over our Original Sin of racism and genocide. Most of our citizens are apathetic and refuse to acknowledge the very real danger that Sinclair Lewis’ novel It Can’t Happen Here is becoming reality in our own time. As long as most of us have our “bread and circuses,” we frankly don’t give a damn what horrors we will leave our children and grandchildren to face. The possibility of our nation being saved from neo-fascists, white supremacists, opportunist politicians, and greedy billionaires and giant corporations seems more remote as time passes. 

Our story is the story of every empire in history, and those stories have all ended in shame and disaster—every single one of them. The story has always been the same. So, to ask the question of the psalmist, “How can we sing the Lord’s song in a strange land?” we can sing it only when we trust that love will have the last word in the cosmic story and that authentic hope is not in vain. Why? Because protology is eschatology. God has a purpose which we trust will be fulfilled—if not in this dimension, then in the next dimension. (Ultimately, resurrection asks us to trust that in that next dimension, all creation will be included, healed, and reconciled. In other words, heaven and earth become one.) Resurrection is the foundation of the Christian faith. Without that hope, there is no ultimate faith in God or hope for this creation and the billions of humans who have suffered and died on this planet, often at the hands of greedy, arrogant, and violent demagogues. That’s why Paul wrote in I Corinthians 15, “If for this life only we have hoped in Christ, we are of all mortals most to be pitied.” He wasn’t talking about “pie in the sky.” He was talking about God’s purposes in creation being fulfilled and made real through love. 

Frankly, I don’t know if it’s possible to save the broken society we have built when we refuse to even recognize that it is broken. But if we have any integrity and any devotion to freedom, democracy, truth, and justice, we must try—we must try to bring some of that heaven to earth now before it’s too late. And if we fail, like so many nations have failed in the past, then as followers of Jesus, we must not despair. Those early Christians facing persecution, crucifixion, torture, and wild beasts in Roman arenas did not give up. They believed that protology is eschatology; that love will win; and that joy would come. They believed and trusted all of that because that Babe in a manger gave his all and was resurrected as God’s first sign that the original purpose of creation would be fulfilled. Without that hope, we will lack the energy, inspiration, and love to help the light shine even in the deepest darkness and save what we can of the mess we have gotten ourselves into. 

So, read or sing “Joy to the World” with its original meaning guiding your thoughts and prayers, and find your joy in the faithfulness of a God who stubbornly refuses to give up on any part of Her creation. Sing it as a protest song as you dance in the belly of the dragon. And then do your part as a foretaste of that “day” when the wonders of His love all come together to bring that Beloved Cosmic Community. 

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.

Joy to the world! the Savior 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.

No more let sins and sorrows grow,
Nor thorns infest the ground;
He comes to make His blessings flow
Far as the curse is found,
Far as the curse is found,
Far as, far as, the curse is found.

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.

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