‘Adoration of the shepherds’ c.1650 ( © Museo Nacional del Prado) By Bartolomé Esteban Murillo
The word joy is often heard during the Christmas season. But does the word joy mean anything in our happiness-obsessed culture? And why does the questionable birth of a Jewish baby to an unwed teenager (Mary) in an obscure part of the Middle East (Bethlehem) from two thousand years ago matter to our 21st century world of social media and space travel? What could possibly be joyful about such an event from the past?
A few years ago I attended a musical event in Amsterdam called, How to throw a Christmas Party. The show can be best described as a Christmas party combining beautiful music, euphoric colours and sporadic theatrical interludes. You can listen to the music on Spotify.
The lyrics to many of the songs were quite political, addressing issues of justice in the world. One song in particular ‘Blessed are the shipwrecked’ about refugees dying in the sea really impacted me. I felt so strangely moved by the presence of God while enjoying the show that I later quipped it was ‘secular spirituality’ at its best. This made me realise something, that the central message of Christmas is not religious news but secular news—if by religious we mean the private world of people’s personal beliefs divorced from the secular world of politics and economics. The English word ‘secular’ comes from the Latin word saeculum, meaning matters concerning this world, this age, as opposed to matters dealing with the next age after death and in eternity. Is it possible that by turning Christmas into a religious festival we have depoliticised the secular message of God’s incarnation into the flesh-and-blood world of human existence?
Three things that make the birth-event of this particular Middle Eastern baby good news for the world in the here and now:
1) In the midst of great darkness in our world, there is a light that shines, which has overcome the darkness and will never be defeated by it. Jesus is that light, and he has defeated the powers of darkness. Because
the light of Jesus shines on us, world history is not going to end in doom, gloom and destruction. The Prophet Isaiah wrote “The people who walked in darkness have seen a great light; those who lived in a land of deep darkness - on them light has shined” (Isaiah 9:2). The birth of Jesus was the true light coming into the world and this light is greater than the powers of death at work in history. This means that after every tragedy in history (personal or social), there is subsequently some unexpected miracle of natality — new
beginning. The miracle of new beginnings is the good news of Christmas that brings unspeakable joy to my heart...
2) The message of Christmas is that those who suffer injustice and oppression in the world are not forgotten by God, because he does care and he has promised to establish justice on earth. Making such a statement could seem hypocritical and false in the light of events in Yemen and other places of conflict in the world. But if we were to step back and look at history over a longer period, say two thousand years, then a different picture emerges. We see little insignificant groups of people have eventually won against mighty powers. In the 2nd and 3nd century AD the Roman Empire was turned upside-down by ragamuffin nobodies who believed that Jesus is the true ruler of the universe. This will keep on happening time and again in history. The Goliaths of this world will one day fall, defeated by little-boy David. The forgotten people of history will one day be vindicated; truth and justice may be suppressed, but they will ultimately have the final word and the last laugh. The miracle of justice realised is the good news of Christmas that brings unspeakable joy to my heart...
3) God has made provision for the hardened hearts of people to become softened by the power of divine love. Every one of us has within us an ego that is self-obsessed, and wanting self-sufficiency. We are driven by the urge to use vulnerable people around us as means for achieving our own selfish ends, while we ourselves become victimised by others above us in the power ladder. Charles Darwin called this ‘survival of the fittest’, but the Bible calls it sin. This is the reality of our world separated from God. And yet, strangely, in this fallen world, there are people who live by a different logic. They have experienced a deep transformation—a miracle of love you can call it— that leads them to become passionate about caring for the needs of others and sacrificially serving those who are on the margins of society. The only explanation: grace overcoming the brute facts of human nature. The miracle of changed hearts is the good news of Christmas that brings unspeakable joy to my heart...
I have tried to use my words to explain the significance of Christmas, but our words will often fail us in our efforts to describe the meaning of the birth of Christ. The mystery of Christ’s incarnation has to be personally experienced, which leads to an explosion of joy. Paradoxically, this experience of joy can overflow in the heart even when circumstances are painful and tragic.
So what is the unspeakable joy of Christmas?
The birth of Jesus, 'Emmanuel' - God of flesh and blood now with us and for us! No matter what else we say and do during Christmas, it is a yearly remembering
of a natal event that has fundamentally altered the essence and end-goal of ‘secular’ world history. Because the logos of cosmic reality was born a baby and dwelt amongst us, there is hope for human beings and for life on our planet.
Joy is the experience of the fulfilment of what is hoped for. Hope for a better world, fulfilled in Jesus’ birth.
This is surely Good News worth celebrating!