God Rest Ye Merry Gentlemen is one of my favorite carols of the Advent season.
God rest ye merry gentlemen
Let nothing you dismay,
For Jesus Christ our Savior
Was born upon this day,
To save us all from Satan’s power
When we were gone astray:
O tidings of comfort and joy,
Comfort and joy,
O tidings of comfort and joy.
This old English carol reminded Christians that dismay and the darkness of sin were not the final word. Rather, the Advent of Jesus had delivered them from the “domain of darkness” and transferred them “into the kingdom of light.”(1) And yet, the tune is set in a minor key. While no expert in music, I love the juxtaposition of the minor notes and tones with uplifting lyrics, for it reminds me of the reality that joy is often mingled with sorrow. This is true of life, but also true of Advent.
The longing and expectation that begins the Advent season, turns to joy as the arrival of the Christ child approaches. Christians rejoice for the tiny baby who will be King. Here is joy enfleshed, and our lives belong to his rule and reign. And yet, many who are familiar with this carol, even those who sing its verses, may still feel the power of evil over them or feel that they have yet to find their way to the manger of Jesus. Some find it difficult to enter into the joy and victory that Christmas proclaims.
For many in our world today, it is difficult to rejoice when the predominant experience is that is a world in crisis. Many desperately long to enter into the joy promised long ago to humble shepherds: “Behold, I bring you good news of a great joy which shall be for all the people; for today in the city of David there has been born for you a Savior, who is Messiah, the Lord.”(2) But, for one reason or another, they still feel trapped by adversarial powers.
Those first recipients of the announcement heralding the birth of the Messiah knew it signaled the end of exile and darkness, for the coming of the Messiah meant a new age for the people of Israel. We hear this promise sung in psalms: “When the Lord brought back the captive ones of Zion, we were like those who dream. Then our mouth was filled with laughter, and our tongue with joyful shouting; Then they said among the nations, ‘The Lord has done great things for them.’”(3) The Messiah would gather those who had wandered, and would be light to those in the darkness. Great things will be accomplished for the people as a result of the Messiah’s advent.
Yet, these great things were not accomplished without tears of sorrow and mourning. For in this same psalm that heralds God’s deliverance, joy and sorrow are inextricably linked: “Those who sow in tears shall reap with joyful shouting. He who goes to and fro weeping, carrying his bag of seed, shall indeed come again with a shout of joy, bringing his sheaves with him.”(4) Indeed, the sowing and the seed are the tears of the exiles, tears that bear a mysterious harvest of joy. Talitha Arnold reflects on the mystery of suffering turned to joy: “The natural power of God to turn seeds into grain would be miracle enough. But Psalm 126 makes an even greater statement. The seeds are not ordinary, but seeds of sorrow. The fruit they bear is not grain or wheat, but shouts of joy.”(5)
In spite of a world easily consumed by sorrow and sadness this season, those who anticipate the arrival of the source of all joy recognize that the harvest of joy is sown in tears—tears that are redeemed by the one who “for the joy set before him endured the cross and suffered its shame.”(6) Jesus, the joy of the world, was not immune to tears. The “tidings of comfort and joy” would be that God enters our suffering and is not removed from it. God enters into humanity as the man of sorrows and acquainted with grief. God makes a dwelling place with the exiles of this world every Advent Season offering deliverance and salvation.
Joy is often elusive even as it is sought after with great energy. But perhaps we look in the wrong places and in the wrong ways: “This is no jingle-bells joy brought with a swipe of a credit card,” Arnold continues. “The seeds of this joy have been planted in sadness and watered with tears. This is the honest joy that often comes only after weeping has tarried the night.”(7) Tidings of comfort and joy come in a person, according to the Christian gospel, a person who sowed both tears of joy and sadness himself. How poignant that these tidings of comfort and joy are issued from this Man of Sorrows! Yet it is Jesus who can bring joy from tears and fill hearts with gladness at his coming. Weeping may last through the night, but joy indeed comes in the morning.
Margaret Manning Shull is a member of the speaking and writing team at Ravi Zacharias International Ministries in Bellingham, Washington.
(1) Colossians 1:13.
(2) Luke 2:10-11.
(3) Psalm 126:1-3.
(4) Psalm 126:5-6
(5) Talitha Arnold, Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Ed. David Lyon Bartlett (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 2008), 60.
(6) Hebrews 12:2.
(7) Arnold, 60.