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Tidings of Comfort and Joy

I smile wryly at the dry humour on display in the face of the spread of the omicron variant. First lines of Christmas carols seem to lend themselves particularly well, with such zingers as ‘Hark! The herald-angels ping’ and ‘We three kings of Variant are’. This time last year we were all working out which bubbles we would be in for Christmas. This year we wait to see if any further restrictions will be imposed. I am wondering if post-Christmas visits to my family and friends are going to be possible. You may well be thinking the same.

‘God rest ye merry, gentlemen’ falls foul of gender equality before we reach the second line, which may be why we don’t seem to sing it much these days. A shame, perhaps, as the second line is ‘let nothing you dismay’. The good news of the birth of the Christ-child is too easily lost in the midst of present woe, and we ought not let it be. For this news is, truly, tidings of comfort and joy.

We tend to use the word comfort nowadays as a synonym for soothe. But a comforter is, literally, one who adds strength. The Christmas story demonstrates strength in surprising places. There is strength in the obedience of Mary; in the devotion of Joseph; in the glory-song of the angelic army; in the willingness and wonder of magi and shepherds. But above all, and with supreme irony, the strength that is found in the deep mystery of the incarnation, where the power of Love’s locus is in a baby’s birth. Tidings of comfort for sure.

But what of joy? The word ‘joy’ appears twice in the birth narratives — Matthew 2.10, when the magi are ‘overwhelmed with joy’ when they find the star had stopped; and (coincidentally) Luke 2.10, when the angel of the Lord tells the shepherds that they have ‘good news of great joy for all the people’. But what does ‘joy’ really mean?

I read last week the assertion of one theologian that

… joy is not the same as happiness.

Happiness is man-made - a happy home, a happy marriage, a happy relationship with our friends and within our jobs.

We work for these things, and if we are careful and wise and lucky, we can usually achieve them.

But joy is a mystery because it can happen anywhere, anytime, even under the most unpromising circumstances, even in the midst of suffering, with tears in its eyes.

Even nailed to a tree.

Like many, you may be completely bowed down and fed up, rocked by uncertainty, and fearful for the future. As I write, we have no idea what comes next in terms of decisions that the government will make, but the news doesn’t look so good. What does look good, what is good, is the never-changing news of Christmas. The strength and joy that we can derive from this Truth is freely available to all whose hearts can be open to it.

So, God rest ye merry, wherever and however you spend this Christmas. Merry, because his Love abides in you. Love that is, truly, comfort and joy.

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