O Little Town of Bethlehem, What Child is This, Angels we Have Heard on High, and Silent Night all vie for first place. What is your favorite carol? None makes my heart soar more than Joy to the World, especially when the trumpets and organ lets loose on Christmas Eve and we sing with abandon. It’s enough to rattle one’s reluctant faith to life. Since this is the 300th anniversary of the beloved carol, I did some research on it.
I had never realized that it has four layers of composition. It began thousands of years ago when a faithful Hebrew writer composed Psalm 98 which begins “Make a joyful noise all the earth.” Centuries later, a brilliant and counter-cultural Christian in England named Issac Watts penned a poem hymn based on this Biblical Psalm. And a contemporary composer in London borrowed some measures from Handel’s Messiah and set Watts’ words to music. After another century passed, an American in Boston, Lowell Mason, published the arrangement we still sing today.
This layering of beauty reminds me of how our lives unfold. On Christmas we celebrate using traditions we have inherited from our families and friends as well as ones we have added along the way. At our house, we bake kolaches, a Czechoslovakian pastry I grew up eating in Texas. We sit down to a candlelight dinner using the special china, carrying on a tradition set by my mother and aunt. And we carefully unwrap each ornament, remember the church members who gifted us those treasures at an ornament shower when we got married 27 years ago. At the same time, we have added our own layers: a comical gift exchange with our children, aunts and uncles; a special drink by the tree after all the Christmas Eve services are over.
This layering of tradition with new practices mirrors our faith as well. We take from the past the witness and testimony of the founders of our faith. We embrace the stories from the Bible and the bold leadership of Christian heroes and heroines throughout the centuries. But we add on what we have discerned as truth in our own experience. Because a true faith leads to joy! Joy not only for us but for the world!