My favorite Christmas hymn is “Joy to the World.” Written by Isaac Watts in the 18th century, the music of this hymn is lively and triumphant. It captures well the celebratory spirit of the season.
But it’s the lyrics that are truly significant. This one hymn expresses what I believe is the heart of the Christian understanding of Christmas.
For one thing, it’s not just joy and celebration. The hymn contains a sobering realization that all is not right in the world, even at Christmas time. There is a prayer in the hymn that expresses the hope that one day all that is dark and destructive in the human heart will give way to something truly good. Or to use the words of Isaac Watts, “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.”
It’s the curse that dogs us. Watts held to the traditional Christian idea of the Fall. This tragic event, described in the opening chapters of the Bible, took place in a paradisiacal garden populated only by obedient animals and two disobedient humans. These humans, known as Adam and Eve, broke the only rule God had for them and thereby unleashed death and alienation on the entire human race.
The language of curse comes from the speech God gives upon finding out that the children could not be left alone for a minute without getting into trouble. Because of their error God says the ground will give up its fruit grudgingly. Working folks will get their bread by hard toil and sweat of the brow. And women will endure the pain of childbirth and be subject to their husbands. How interesting that God would include among the curses resulting from our failure the subjugation of one to another.
I have always wondered if God was speaking prescriptively or descriptively. Was God saying “Because you did this I am going to force one human being to rule over another?” Or was God merely lamenting the inevitable order of things once we leave the innocence and safety of paradise.
One thing for certain, once the human family left the garden, murder and hate swept upon them like a storm. The first murder was committed by the first born of the first couple. Ever since then we have lived in a violently divided world. The haves are divided against the have-nots. Brown people are divided against white people. Male people are divided against female people. And God help you if you fall somewhere in between one of the clearly designated categories
But there is good news. Regardless of how we understand the nature of the curse, the message of Christmas is that God has set in motion a force intended to free us from the bloody effects of our failure. Watts has taught us to sing that now there is hope of the curse’s undoing.
And what would this undoing look like? Well if we follow literally the idea that in Jesus the curse is undone, it could mean the end of the divisions between us. The Apostle Paul thought this was the case. He wrote that in Christ there is neither slave nor free, Jew or Gentile, male or female. Sounds like the end of subjugation to me.
Imagine what the world would be like if we were suddenly able to eliminate all the artificial distinctions that divide us. Imagine a world where every child born is free from the curse of prejudice, hate and violence.
As far as the curse is found hope has been born. Joy to the World.
James L. Evans is pastor of First Baptist Church in Auburn, Ala.