Songs of Joy and Resistance

Songs of Joy and Resistance

Songs of Joy and Resistance

I often get the sense that we don’t quite take joy seriously enough.  This might be especially true in a season like the current one when joy is treated, at best, as a given, and at worst, as a commodity to be bought.   It often gets mixed up into the jumble of secular sentiments like “merriness,” “magic” and “Christmas cheer.”  Now there’s obviously nothing wrong with being happy but I think we all know that Christian joy runs much deeper than feelings and expressions of cheerfulness.  

The true biblical and theological depth of joy is brought into focus by Willie Jennings, who gives this powerful summary of how joy actually works in our broken world:  “joy is an act of resistance against despair.”   That’s a very important and helpful definition, and one to which we should hold on.  In our narrations and celebrations of Christmas we often gloss over or ignore the looming reality of despair.  Christmas cheer tries to just ignore despair; joy actively fights back against it.

Despair is a powerful force, one birthed from the shattering of worlds and grown in the darkness of isolation, segregation and oppression.  It is a force that tightens its grip on individuals and communities and turns them, either slowly or suddenly, towards death.  Like roots of a weed it buries deep within and between people; suffocating any air to breathe, eliminating options, and cutting off relationships that nurture.  But most importantly, it whispers poisonous words into ears and makes eloquent arguments trying to convince a person or people:   “you are worthless … there is no escape … might as well give up.” 

It is a layer of the implied context behind the phrase “In the days of King Herod of Judea”; a broken and occupied people in a forgotten corner of a sprawling and seemingly all-powerful empire.  Despair was rampant.  Yet, a chosen and lowly few become privy to some very, very good news delivered by messengers of God.  And we witness as this good news unleashes a profound joy that resists and fights back against the overwhelming despair that had rooted itself in these people.   

How does this joy manifest?  How do these witnesses actually resist the despair of their time?  They resist in the same way that so many others have resisted in the history of Israel, and the history of so many other suffering peoples: through song.  When everything is taken that can be taken, and one’s voice is all that remains, a song becomes the work of joy; of resistance to despair.

This is a reason why everyone seems to be singing in the first couple chapters of Matthew and Luke: Elizabeth, Mary, Zechariah, the angels, shepherds, Magi, Simeon, Anna and others. One can only imagine that this singing is as relentless as the despair that surrounded them.  It was the manifestation of a joy that had a lot of work to do in the lives of these people.  

This singing was so much more than feeling cheery and merry.  It was a proclamation of life and living with the fervent knowledge that God had not forgotten them.  The despair all around them was a lie.  God was near and active, and revealed in the life of this child that Mary carried with her.  

Despair is not far from many, today.  The list of reasons is too long to even begin here.  As we affirm during advent, our world is indeed a broken one.  But the Christmas story — full of song — is a critical instrument of joy for us during these days.  The telling, and singing, of this story is intended to join us with the chorus of witnesses resisting the forces of despair at work in the world.  It is my prayer that we can enter into the full depth of joy this Christmas and with voices raised in resistance proclaim with the apostle Paul, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, rejoice.  Let your gentleness be known to everyone. The Lord is near.”