We’ve marked the beginning of a new Church year by starting again in Advent, the first season of the liturgical calendar. Like a hapless Black Friday shopper thrown to the ground by the crazed masses surging around him, Advent usually gets trampled in our culture’s mad rush towards Christmas, and Christians are by no means immune to this trend. At the Christian college I attended, the college radio station began playing Christmas songs 24/7 on the day after Thanksgiving and continued to play them around the clock without exception until December 25th. When I was a freshman, this didn’t strike me as odd; but over the next three years I began learning about the church seasons at the Anglican church I attended, and by my senior year all that Christmas music during Advent became unbearable.

When I recently received a lovely Advent-themed devotional from my alma mater in the mail, I wondered if perhaps they had changed their Christmas music policy over at the radio station, so a few days after Thanksgiving I checked the radio station’s live stream. To my chagrin, it was playing “O Christmas Tree.”

My distaste for Christmas music during Advent isn’t, I hope, about liturgical snobbery (see Jonathan Mitchican’s “Stop being jerks about Christmas”); rather, it comes from a deep love for the Advent season. Advent is one of the richest times of the church year, and we miss out on that richness when we barrel straight for Christmas as soon as Black Friday begins — or even before Thanksgiving Day ends. Advent is all the more needful in our time when Christmas is awash with cultural significance that has little to do with the baby in the manger; it helps us to see through all the clutter and noise that has accumulated at this time of the year to the true hope and joy of Christmas. One of the ways the Church lives counter culturally during Advent is by holding off on singing Christmas carols until Christmas proper. Like the disappearance of the word “Alleluia” during the season of Lent, which continues until Easter Day, we refrain from singing Christmas carols during Advent until Christmas, and as at the end of every fast, the return of beloved carols is all the sweeter because we’ve spent time waiting to sing them.

Waiting to sing Christmas carols is not easy, largely because they are so well known to us, while Advent music, by contrast, is mostly unfamiliar. There are a mere 20 Advent hymns in The Hymnal 1982 of the Episcopal Church, with perhaps only one that the majority of us know by heart (“O Come, O Come, Emmanuel”), but there are 40 beloved Christmas hymns in our hymnal, not to mention the countless other Christmas-y songs that didn’t make the cut. However, I have a proposal that will boost the familiarity quotient of the Advent section of our hymnal by about a thousand.

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I discovered recently that one of our beloved Christmas carols is in fact not a Christmas carol at all. The song is so familiar to us, and its words are so well known that we probably haven’t noticed that the song does not include a single detail from the story of Jesus’ birth: no stable, no shepherds, no wise men; no Mary or Joseph; no little town of Bethlehem or choirs of angels or silent nights. It’s “Joy to the World,” which you’ll notice, if you run through the words in your head, does not include a single specific reference to the birth of Christ. The more I’ve pondered its words, the more I believe it would make a better Advent hymn than a Christmas carol, because it’s more about Christ’s second coming than about his first.

When Isaac Watts wrote “Joy to the World,” he wasn’t thinking about Christmas; nor was he thinking about Advent. Instead he was reflecting on Psalm 98 as part of his hymn series The Psalms of David Imitated. Watts wrote this series for his congregational church in London, which sang only the text of the Psalms in their worship services. If you’ve ever complained about not being able to sing Christmas songs during Advent, keep in mind we have loads of musical latitude compared to 17th century English Congregationalists. Watts’ passionate belief that the church should sing songs explicitly about Jesus led him to write a series of over 300 hymns, loosely paraphrasing the Psalms and recasting them in the light of Christ.

Yhen Watts arrived at the second half of Psalm 98, he read the following words:

Make a joyful noise unto the Lord, all the earth:
make a loud noise, and rejoice, and sing praise …
With trumpets and sound of cornet make a joyful noise before the Lord, the King.
Let the sea roar, and the fulness thereof; the world, and they that dwell therein.
Let the floods clap their hands: let the hills be joyful together
Before the Lord; for he cometh to judge the earth:
with righteousness shall he judge the world, and the people with equity.

After absorbing this image of the whole earth bursting into song because the Lord comes to judge the earth, Watts wrote the four verses of “Joy to the World,” riffing off of Psalm 98 with his own words:

Joy to the world, the Lord is come,
Let earth receive her King;
Let every heart prepare Him room,
And Heaven and nature sing…

While fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
Repeat the sounding joy…

He rules the world with truth and grace,
And makes the nations prove
The glories of his righteousness
And wonders of his love.

Watts gave this hymn the heading “The Messiah’s Coming and Kingdom,” capping off what I now consider the perfect hymn for the Advent season. During Advent we anticipate the second coming of Christ and the “life of the world to come,” before remembering and celebrating his first coming in the Incarnation at Christmas. In fact, traditionally Advent has been a time to meditate upon the Four Last Things that are associated with Christ’s second coming — Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. While that list strikes a somber and even ominous note, suggesting that Christ’s second coming should be feared, with the aid of Psalm 98 Watts shows that Christ’s Judgment will establish justice and therefore be cause for joy. The lyrics of “Joy to the World” catapult us into the time that Jesus will usher in his kingdom once and for all in its fullness. Jesus will reverse the curse that was placed upon creation at the Fall, and so sin and sorrow will cease; thorns will no longer infest the ground; and his blessings will flow “far as the curse is found.” Christ will free all of creation from its bondage, and in response every part of creation will burst into a song of joy at his advent.

Entering into the season of Advent isn’t an abstract spiritual exercise divorced from our daily lives. The Church’s seasons invite us to connect the reality of our lives and our world with their truths. During Advent we confess that we live in a world in need of a king, of justice, and of joy. We only have to watch the news for about 30 seconds to know that our world, in its struggles, its sorrows, and its sin, is longing and crying out for a Savior to come. And more personally, during Advent we admit our own need for our king, for his justice and his joy to invade our lives. We all long for the curse to be undone in our own circumstances — for sickness to be healed, for estrangement to end, for justice to finally arrive. The word of hope during Advent is that we know the end of the story; our King will bring a final and lasting justice and joy to our world. So consider this your priestly dispensation: to sing “Joy to the World” during Advent; and may its words remind you that one day Jesus will rule the world with truth and grace and make known the wonders of his great love for us.

Based on an Advent I sermon preached at Church of the Resurrection, Franklin, TN. 

About The Author

The Rev. Sarah Puryear currently stays at home with her two children. Most recently she has served associate rector and priest associate at St. George’s Episcopal Church in Nashville, Tennessee. She received her undergraduate degree in English and ancient languages from Wheaton College and her MDiv from Duke Divinity School in 2008. She loves reading fiction, traveling, and spending time with her husband Dan Puryear and their two children.

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3 Comments on "Why ‘Joy to the World’ isn’t a Christmas Carol"

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Sarah, you will be pleased to know that I took up your suggestion immediately. We sang “Joy to the world” in Chapel this morning, and everyone thought that I had finally allowed in the Christmas carols. (When you have Chapel every morning the lack of Christmas carols becomes very noticeable to our students!)

For what it’s worth, those of us who are a certain age remember that “Joy to the world” was not in the Christmas section of the old 1940 Hymnal but in General Hymns, # 319 to be exact, and did not have the music by Handel, called Antioch, but a 1791 tune called Richmond by Thomas Hawks. It used to be a big irritation for us students who accompanied school chapel to get the “right” music to play it at my Episcopal School – never long before Christmas vacation of course – because you had to bring another hymnal for… Read more »

Actually, psalm 98 has long been strongly associated with Christmas. In the early centuries of Christianity psalms were seen as being prophetic of Christ and so the psalter became the song book of the christian faith. Since the middle ages, if not earlier, we have proof that Psalm 98 was sung at various times during the year, but especially around Christmas in the church. It is likely that Watts would have been aware of this practice.

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