The Meaning of Christmas in Five Paintings 3 - Christmas is Joyful (Sawai Chinnawong, Nativity)
Readings Isaiah 55:10-56:1 and Luke 1:39-45
Image: Sawai Chinnawong's Nativity, (2004), Acrylic on canvas, 32 x 37 in.
This is our third painting in our series on the meaning of Christmas, and it is perfectly suited to this week of Advent. Because what this painting reveals to me about the meaning of Christmas, is that Christmas is joyful!
Now to say that Christmas is joyful is not intended to diminish or dismiss the many ways that Christmas can be a time of deep pain – when loss and absence is all the more acute. For this reason, tonight some of us will go to Forestville Uniting Church to take part in their blue Christmas service. Joy is never meant to be a forced emotion and so to say that joy is part of the meaning of Christmas is to say something else entirely.
For it is in the midst of terror and struggle that Isaiah proclaims that the mountains and the hills before you shall burst into song as God brings deliverance and redemption. This promise of justice and salvation is given to people experiencing brutality and desperation, and joy springs forth!
In the same way, Elizabeth and Mary greet one another in the hills: the child in Elizabeth’s womb leaps for joy, Elizabeth is filled with the Holy Spirit, and Mary bursts forth into song. This is the hard won joy of two women living in a time of persecution and violence, whose own pregnancies have been nothing but simple – but who know, nothing is impossible with God. Elizabeth in her old age will have joy and gladness, for her son will turn many of the people of Israel to the Lord. And Mary, the favoured one, blessed among women, in her virginity and scandal will bear a son, and he will be great and will be called the Son of the Most High… he will reign over the house of Jacob and of his kingdom there will be no end…
Into generations of waiting, into a nation of suffering, into a world of yearning, the joy of these miraculous births signals the joy of the Lord, and the joy of the Lord is our strength! The joy of Christmas is active, bursting forth in surprising ways. Joy is a fruit of the Spirit and a gift of a people who have not lost hope that the word that goes out from God’s mouth will not return empty, but shall accomplish salvation and deliverance.
And so this painting reminds us of the power of joy and the meaning of Christmas – not only for Mary and Joseph – but for the whole community of Christ. His extended family, his neighbours, his nation – all those in Israel praying for the coming Messiah. This painting also reminds us that given the culture of the time it was unlikely to just be Mary, Joseph, and a gaggle of farm animals present at the birth of Christ – the wider family and many more incidentally related folk would have been there, and the sound of their joy might have rivalled the sound of the angels hallelujah being sung a few miles away to a group of shepherds, rivalled even the song of the mountains and hills!
Christ was born into a community who needed good news, and his birth brought forth great joy. Sadly, over the next few years, the sounds of this joy will be replaced by the wailing grief brought on by Herod’s massacre of the innocents. But the world’s violence and the grief it brings is never strong enough to crush the joy of Christ’s birth.
And so we pray it might be for us. That amidst the pangs and worries of those absent to us in this season, that amidst the fears and lament over wars and injustice, that amidst the reminders of all the many ways this world can be ugly and cruel, there are moment where the joy of Christ’s birth bursts forth. Where that joy is heard in the songs of Mary, the angels, and the mountains. Where that joy is felt in the gathering of friends, family, and church. Where that joy warms our hearts in the familiar and fresh story of Christmas. Where that joy erupts in the promise that salvation and deliverance will come, that there will be a day unlike today. This joy does not smother all else we feel, it lives beside it, as Christ himself will live beside his people, in all their fear, loss, love, and hope, proclaiming good news, the deliverance of the captives, and the year of the Lord’s favour!
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