“Joy to the World.” Are we actually planning to sing that this year?

As the death toll rises in Gaza, children starve and America deals with the fact that it saw more than 500 mass shootings this year, joy seems too dismissive a word for these troubled times. Perhaps “Grief in the World” would be a more appropriate song this year.

And yet, time continues to move and we find ourselves in the season of Advent, waiting for Christ as we are weighed down by tragedy after tragedy. 

When I feel the heaviness of the world, I often turn to the arts for comfort. These days, I find myself revisiting my favorite Broadway musical:  “Hadestown,” which, funny enough, is a modern take on a Greek tragedy. 

In the musical, the common folk are struggling. The seasons are messed up because Hades keeps Persephone (the goddess who makes plants grow) in the underworld for too long.

The plants can’t grow without her warm touch. When she is on the surface, though, Hades returns to sweep her back to the underworld too soon.

These actions affect more than these bickering lovers. The off-kilter schedule has made the days either blazing hot or freezing cold, making farming difficult and food scarce. 

As such, the common folk struggle to make ends meet. These people are Advent people; if they aren’t desperately awaiting Persephone’s return so they might finally have full bellies, they are nervously awaiting her departure when the vines grow bare and the days cold.

So when Persephone finally returns to them with wine enough to share, they celebrate for the brief time they have with her. They dance, feast, drink, and make merry. 

They know it’s only a momentary reprieve from their struggles, but they let down their guard anyway. They take advantage of the present opportunity to embrace ever-fleeting joy.

At one point in the celebration, the crowd asks Orpheus (a poet) to make a toast. For a moment, he waxes poetic about how thankful they are that Persephone has returned to them. 

But as he gets to the end of his toast, the music stops. The jovial atmosphere turns pensive as he lifts his cup to toast “to the world we dream about— and— the one we live in now.”

This Advent, when I consider joy—something that feels so fleeting, so absurd, so superfluous amid unfathomable tragedy in the world– I can’t help but think of that line. 

It recognizes that the joy they’re experiencing in that moment won’t last forever, but celebrates it anyway. While celebrating the present, that line also acknowledges a future full of uncertainties ahead of them. That line is not a beginning or an end, but an in-between. 

I cannot think of a better way to describe the liminal tension of what prayer is. 

Prayer is a recognition that the kin-dom of God has not yet come (so we dream about it), but it’s also a call not to abandon the world we have right now. It’s about recognizing the world as it is and committing to make it better– to sit in the present while working toward the future. 

The deliberate, pregnant pause that Orpheus adds before and after the “and” highlights the tension that we hold in the liminal space between the “right now” and the “not yet.”

As we reflect on joy this week of Advent, we, too, find ourselves in the pregnant, liminal space of the “right now” and the “not yet.” We hear promises of peace, but we haven’t yet seen it. 

Mary prophecies that God will “bring down the powerful from their thrones and lift up the lowly,” but it hasn’t happened yet (Luke 1:52). And so we wait, feeling this tension in the depths of our bones.

If you know Greek mythology, then you know things don’t work out well for Orpheus and his lover Euridyce. It is a tragedy, after all.  

But as the musical gears up for its closing number, all the actors take their opening-show marks. Hermes, the narrator, tells the audience that “we’re going to sing it again and again,” even though we already know how it ends. 

Similarly, we know there is tragedy in the world; there always has been and always will be. But we have a choice to make:  Will we let tragedy stomp out our capacity to find joy and beauty in the world? Or will we use tragedy as motivation to make the world a better place?

Will we give up and say, “The show’s over”? Or will we work up the courage to “sing it again and again”?

I’m going to sing—even when it feels foolish. Because when I sing the song of kin-dom building, I can actually believe—even if just for a moment—that God will “No more let sins and sorrows grow/ Nor thorns infest the ground; he comes to make His blessings flow/ Far as the curse is found.” When that happens, perhaps we will finally have “Joy to the World.” 

I invite you to sing, too. Sing “Joy to the World” not as a proclamation of what the world is but as a promise of what it could be. 

Sing for the little joys we find here and there— the laugh of a baby, the game nights with friends, the embrace of a partner. 

Sing for the joys that we desperately yearn for. 

Sing it again and again with a desperation that fervently hopes, as Hermes says, “like it might turn out this time.”

Because if we don’t sing the song of kin-dom building, it’s never going to turn out. And I want joy to at least have a chance to grow, even if just a little bit.

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