“Happy Thanksgiving!”

“Merry Christmas!”

“Happy New Year!”

As the end of the year approaches, everywhere we turn someone is telling us we should be happy. But for families who’ve lost someone they love, the holidays can seem more like something to survive than to enjoy. The traditions and events that can add so much joy and meaning to the season are punctuated with painful, repeated reminders of loss. Many grieving people wish they could find a quiet place to hide until January 2.

So is there any joy to be found in the midst of the holidays when you are grieving the loss of someone you love?

Still Infested

When you’re grieving, the songs you have sung in church your whole life suddenly sound different. Phrases that easily rolled off your tongue, that you barely thought about before, now bring tears. This one was significant for me after my daughter died:

O that with yonder sacred throng, we at his feet may fall,

We’ll join the everlasting song, and crown him Lord of all.

Never before had I pictured faces of people gathered around the throne of God when I sang this, but now I could saw a face I recognized in that “yonder sacred throng.”

Other songs presented me with truth that challenged my doubts about God’s goodness:

Praise to the Lord, who o’er all things so wondrously reigneth,

Shelters thee under his wings, yea, so gently sustaineth!

Hast thou not seen how thy desires all have been

Granted in what he ordaineth?

In those days of grief, I could not help but want to argue with these words even as they instructed me.

When Christmas rolled around, there again I heard all-too-familiar lyrics with new ears—-especially these:

No more let sin and sorrow grow, nor thorns infest the ground.

He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found.

As I worked through the question of why my daughter was born with a fatal genetic disorder, it became clear that the effects of sin have infiltrated every part of creation, including our genetic code. I had developed a deepening sorrow over the pain caused by the effects of sin in this broken world. And when I sang these words, I struggled a bit with them because I knew that thorns still infest the ground.

Far as the Curse Is Found?

Like many others, I have sung “Joy to the World” my whole life. Perhaps because I did not think through the lyrics deeply, I assumed that this was a song about the first coming of Christ as a baby, since we often sing it at Christmas. But how can that be, since this song celebrates the eradication of the curse, which is still a part of our present reality?

The song we sing as “Joy to the World” is Isaac Watts’s rendering of Psalm 98, which is about the coming of the Lord. What becomes clear, in light of what we know about the first coming of Christ as a suffering servant, is that Psalm 98 is more about his second coming as triumphant king. When Jesus came the first time, earth did not receive her king but instead hung him on a cross. Even after his death and resurrection, sin and sorrow still grow, and the thorny effects of the curse remain. The nations do not yet prove the glories of his righteousness.

But when Christ comes again, all will be different. Every knee will bow this time. It won’t be just be humanity celebrating his coming; the earth itself will rejoice. The curse will finally be gone for good so that all of creation will be set free from decay to worship Christ. People from every tribe and nation will gladly crown him as king. This is why there is so much joy in “Joy to the World.” It anticipates joy when Christ comes the second time—-when the kingdom he established at his first coming will be consummated as the reality we will live in forever.

So it is possible to have a happy Thanksgiving, a merry Christmas, and a happy New Year—-even when that joy is mixed with sorrow. Hope and joy at Christmas come from knowing that Christ’s life that began in a cradle ended on a cross. His death-conquering death was followed by resurrection, the first-fruits of all who will one day rise from their graves. Because of his death and resurrection, we can be sure that the day will come when we sing together like never before, “Joy to the world, the Lord is come! He comes to make his blessings flow far as the curse is found!” On that day, we will look each other in the eye and say, “This was worth waiting for! The curse is gone for good! Our hearts, minds, and bodies are no longer broken but healed and whole! We put our hope in Christ, and he has proved worthy of our trust!”

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