“Sweet Hymns of Joy”

“Fall on your knees…” The music of Christmas is truly wonderful, isn’t it? It’s just so – joyful. “Joy to the world, the Lord is come.” I suppose one of the reasons we enjoy the music of Christmas so much is that we only bring it out once a year. Yes, we do hear it incessantly starting the day after Thanksgiving, but after Christmas we put it all away to bring back again next year. But I think our appreciation of Christmas music is more than just about how often we sing it.

I think we enjoy it because it really is great music! The message of Christmas seems to inspire composers to bring out their best, uplifting musical stuff. There is a delightful, joyous lilt to the music of Christmas. But along with joy, Christmas music also has this underlying theme of hope. In celebrating the birth of Jesus, the composers seem to say, we are reminded of the hope we have in God. And it makes for beautiful music.

The carol we just sang, O Holy Night, speaks of such joy and hope. I realize that usually you would hear this carol as a solo, since it has such solo-istic elements. It is quite dramatic, isn’t it? But I wonder, as you sang it did you notice the words of hope and joy? “A thrill of hope, the weary world rejoices, for yonder breaks a new and glorious morn.” And in the third verse, “Sweet hymns of joy in grateful chorus raise we, let all within us praise his holy name.” Such hopeful sentiments. Such joyous pronouncements.

Ah, but I recognize that might not be your experience. For, indeed, we can find ourselves to be sad. We can be sad because of the condition of this world, where greed and despair and violence and war run rampant. We can be sad because of the condition of our own families, with tensions and conflicts and broken relationships and death. We can be sad about the condition of our own selves, with unfulfilled dreams and misplaced desires and loneliness and the specter of meaninglessness. Yes, I suppose there are lots of reasons one can be sad.

And yet, the music of Christmas does not pretend that sadness doesn’t exist. Indeed, this music is often composed and sung in difficult times, somber times – maybe sad times, personally and collectively. O Holy Night, for instance, was written in the historical moment of the abolitionist movement in the 1800’s. Thus, the line, “chains shall he break, for the slave is our brother, and in his name all oppression shall cease,” is a bold and courageous assertion.

The contemporary carol the choir sang earlier, Do You Hear What I Hear, was written at a time when our nation was on the brink of war – the Cuban missile crisis. Husband and wife, Noel Regney and Gloria Shayne, wrote the song, in 1962, during the thirteen days of the U.S – Soviet Union standoff. They were quite intentional in their plea with the lyrics,

Said the king to the people everywhere,
“Listen to what I say!
Pray for peace, people, everywhere…

So, please know this: Christmas is not about putting on pretend joy and hope for a few days. No! It is about being more intentional about embracing joy and hope despite the harsh realities of this world. Into the midst of that world is the “child sleeping in the night. He will bring us goodness and light.”

Christmas is not just a celebration of an historical event that took place two thousand years ago. It is a celebration of Emmanuel, God with us, who breaks into the sadness of our very existence today and makes us glad. It is a celebration of the hope that permeates the music of Christmas. It is the celebration of hope that despite the condition of our world, our families, our own selves we are redeemed, made whole, restored to fullness by the work of grace in our lives. In the birth of Jesus, God declares to us that we have life and health. In God’s eyes we are OK because “out of darkness we have light.” So on this night, on this Christmas night, we sing “sweet hymns of joy…let all that is within us praise his holy name.” May we “fall on our knees” and “hear the angels voices, O night divine.” And with people around the world on this night we shout out, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come!” Let us sing with joyful hearts. Amen.


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