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great joy – andrew picard


Luke tells us that the story of Christmas is one of great joy (Lk. 2:8-14) – good news of great joy for all people. And yet it is not the kind of joy, nor the kind of good news, that I would anticipate. I have slowly made my peace with the kind of God that Christmas proclaims; one who is unafraid of entering into the muck and mess of our lives. The Son of God born into an animal’s feeding trough, wrapped in cloth that are covered in after-birth and bile has become strangely familiar to me. However, what has struck me this year is the word joy that is set in the midst of what I thought God only put up with. Not only is God unafraid of entering into the realities of humanity that I blush at and attempt to avoid, but, the angel tells us, there is joy in it. Undoubtedly the joy is at the coming of God, but it is joy at the coming of God into, what I assumed to be, the murky realities of humanity. There is a big difference between ‘putting up with’ and ‘rejoicing’. I can cope with God putting up with the unpleasant realities of my life (if only for a short while), but the idea that joy is found in the midst of it??!! In much the same way that Good Friday reinterprets our understanding of what is good, this passage causes us to reconsider where and how God might be found and what might be the site and source of joy.

Some years ago William Willimon wrote a wonderful Christmas meditation that captures this much better than me:

A man died. He had not lived the most worthy of lives, to tell the truth. In fact, he was somewhat of a scoundrel. He therefore found himself in Hell, after his departure from this life. His friends, concerned about his sad, though well-deserved fate, went down to Hell, and moved by the man’s misery, rattled those iron gates, calling out to whomever might be listening, “Let him out! Let him out!” Alas, their entreaties accomplished nothing. The great iron doors remained locked shut.

Distinguished dignitaries were summoned, powerful people, academics, intellectuals, prominent personalities. All of them stood at the gates and put forth various reasons why the man should be let out of his place of lonely torment. Some said that due process had not been followed in the man’s eternal sentence. Others appealed to Satan’s sense of fairplay and compassion. The great iron gates refused to move.

In desperation, the man’s pastor was summoned. The pastor came down to the gates of hell, fully vested as if she were to lead a Sunday service. “Let him out! He was not such a bad chap after all. Once he contributed to the church building fund and twice he served meals at a soup kitchen for the homeless. Let him out!” Still, the gates of Hell stood fast.

Then, after all the friends and well-wishers finally departed in dejection, the man’s aged mother appeared at the gates of Hell. She stood there, stooped and weak, only able to whisper softly, in maternal love, “Let me in.”

And immediately the great gates of Hell swung open and the condemned man was free.

Something akin to that great miracle happened for us on a starry night at Bethlehem.

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