This is an excerpt from “12 Days of Christmas Carols,” a devotional which unpacks lines of familiar Christmas carols you’ve sung for years but perhaps have never really thought about.
A couple years ago I was at a candlelight Christmas Eve service, which is one of my favorite services of the year. I’ll admit it; despite my constant railing against clichéd Christmas sentimentality, I’m a sucker for a candlelit, a cappella rendition of “Silent Night.” Gets me every time.
But eventually, all those services kind of run together. Every year you sing the same carols, hear the same general homily, and go home and drink the same egg nog around the same tree. Sentimentality, while endearing and useful for all sorts of warm-fuzzy holiday feelings, is too soft to leave any indelible impressions on the memory.
But this particular year was different. Because right in the middle of singing “Joy to the World,” an elderly gentlemen in the back of the church had a heart attack. 911 was called, paramedics arrived, and it definitely ruined the holiday mood a little. The gentleman ended up being okay, and we finished out the service as usual, but the juxtaposition of what we were singing—“Joy to the world, the Savior reigns!”—and the harsh reality of what we were seeing, really struck me. At first it seemed foolish to sing, “He rules the world with truth and grace,” when all around and in the pews was convincing evidence of the opposite. Is Christmas nothing more than burying our heads in the sand, covering our eyes and ears and saying, “Peace and joy, peace and joy,” where there is no peace and joy?
But as I stood there thinking about it, the words we were singing began to take on a new significance. “Repeat the sounding joy!” began to feel less like naïve optimism… and more like a battle cry, a call to arms against the darkness, an insurrection anthem in a world still groaning in between the first and second comings of the Prince of Peace. We were saying, “All the stories are true. Sin and death does not have the final word here.”
I went home that night with a heart more full of the wonder of Christmas than any year before or since, because I had—really for the first time—glimpsed what Christmas is all about. It’s not about a sentimental scene with a gentle mother and tender baby; it’s about a dark and desperate world, and above it all the improbable war anthem of the angels: “Peace on earth!” Christmas is what happens when heaven’s rescue collides with our ruin. And so Christmas is messy. Christmas is ugly. And in its messiness and ugliness, Christmas meets us right where we are.
There’s a great quote by C.S. Lewis about this: “Enemy-occupied territory—that is what this world is. Christianity is the story of how the rightful king has landed, you might say landed in disguise, and is calling us to take part in a great campaign of sabotage.” Christmas is the opening salvo in that campaign to retake this fallen world for the rightful king.
And today, the Christmas war still continues as the King calls us into his kingdom and then tells us to take up arms—not weapons of guns and violence but of love and sacrifice—against the retreating darkness. In the face of darkness and sorrow, we stand our ground and repeat the sounding joy. To a world dying to know there’s hope, we proclaim, “Let every heart prepare him room.” At the hospital bed, at the graveside, at the dysfunctional dinner table, we defy sin and death and darkness and say, “Let earth receive her King.” We join “the great campaign of sabotage” against Satan’s collapsing empire with our love, with our servanthood, with our songs in the night. People of God, repeat the sounding joy.