For years, our three stocking holders each brandished a letter: J O Y. It’s common Christmas decor. Joy in Christmas lights. Joy on banners. Joy in frames.
This year, as we unpacked our Christmas boxes, and did our annual purge, the JOY stocking holders wound up in the pile for the thrift store. The immediate cause was the advent of baby Mercy, born in April. Three letters are inadequate to hold four stockings. But perhaps we have a theological reason as well to let the JOY holders go.
Plain old joy undersells the glory of Christmas. Matthew and Luke accent different aspects of the birth story, but they sing this note in unison: Christ’s coming is not simply an occasion for joy, but great joy.
God’s World of Joys
In the beginning, the God of joy made a world of joys — a creation full of good, altogether “very good,” and primed to delight his creatures (Genesis 1:31; 2:9). As the work of his hands, we know joy. We have tasted his goodness in his world, even on this side of sin’s curse. We have experienced, however meagerly or infrequently, the blessed emotional surges of God-made delight — in a kind word, in a friend’s hug, in our team’s victory, in a cool breeze, in good food and drink. We know normal joy.
But Christmas is not normal joy. Christmas, the Gospels say, is great joy. Christmas is not natural joy, but supernatural. God set Christmas apart. He himself has come down in the person of his Son. The Word has become flesh. The long-awaited Savior is born. When the angel heralds his arrival, he says, “I bring you good news of great joy” (Luke 2:10). And when pagan astrologers traverse far and find him, “they rejoiced exceedingly with great joy” (Matthew 2:10).
God gave us a world of joys to get us ready for this moment when announcing “joy” no longer would be enough. God gave us joy for Christmas joy to surpass it.
God’s Words of Joy
But not only did God fill his world with joy, but also his word. The Bible is replete with “joy” — more than two hundred times in an English translation — but “great joy” appears in single digits. “Great joy” is rare and climactic. At the anointing of David’s own son as his successor, at the height of Israel’s kingdom — “great joy” (1 Kings 1:40). At the restoration of the Passover after generations of neglect — “great joy” (2 Chronicles 30:26). At the dedication of Nehemiah’s rebuilt walls after the return from exile — “great joy” (Nehemiah 12:43). Joy is the stuff of every day; “great joy” is kept for the highest of moments.
Other than Matthew’s and Luke’s mention of “great joy” at Jesus’s birth, both Gospels celebrate “great joy” at his resurrection and ascension (Matthew 28:8; Luke 24:52). Acts 15:3 mentions “great joy” at the surprising and wonderful inclusion of the Gentiles in God’s new-covenant people, and how else could Jude 24 describe our coming into God’s own presence without the experience of “great joy”?
Then Came (Great) Joy
“Great joy” at Christmas tells us something profound about God and how he works in our world. God gave us a garden in the beginning to prepare us for a garden-city in the end. God made the world to remake it one day. God gave a first covenant to surpass it with a second. God gave John the Baptist to point forward to Jesus. God made a world of joys to surpass them all with the treasure hidden in a field, the pearl of great price, and the surpassing value of knowing Christ Jesus our Lord.
God gave us joy to accentuate and deepen the experience of great joy. There must be joy before there can be great joy. We must know good before we can know better. God designed his world of joys to prepare us for great joy in his Son.
How, then, is the joy of Christmas not just normal but great? Do Matthew and Luke give us any hints as to how Christmas joy is set apart from the joys we know and love every day, even in our struggles and pain?
Hark! The angel who heralds “great joy” in Luke 2:10 is not alone. “Suddenly there was with the angel a multitude of the heavenly host praising God and saying, ‘Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace among those with whom he is pleased!’” (Luke 2:13–14).
Note the great heights of this joy — from the face of earth all the way up to the heights of heaven. Such news captures not only lowly shepherds, but even the hosts of heaven, who long to look into these things (1 Peter 1:12). And as God’s glory rises to the highest places, so does our joy. Because we are most satisfied in God when he is most glorified. In both Matthew 2 and Luke 2, “great joy” comes together with worship and praise. “The shepherds returned, glorifying and praising God for all they had heard and seen” (Luke 2:20). The magi “fell down and worshiped him” (Matthew 2:11).
Christmas joy also goes to great lengths. This is “good news of great joy that will be for all the people” (Luke 2:10). All the people. Not just kings and high-ranking officials, but blue-collar shepherds. Not just Jews, but Gentiles — even pagan astrologers like the magi. Black and white. Women and men. Laymen and clergy. Plumbers and dentists. This is no tribal joy, but for all kinds of people, in every place, at every time.
This is not a small joy quarantined in Jerusalem, but a great joy extended and offered to all the nations.
And Christmas joy also goes to great depths. Here is a joy deeper than every fear and grief, deeper than every sorrow and pain.
Before the angel announces “great joy,” the shepherds are filled with “great fear” (Luke 2:9). This great joy comes into a world of great sin, great fear, great sorrow, great suffering. In fact, this child, who is Joy Incarnate, will be a Man of Sorrows, acquainted with grief, and it will be his great suffering that secures for us the great joy (Isaiah 53:3–6).
From his birth in Bethlehem to his death on a cross, this Joy was great enough to be born in obscurity, be laid in a manger, and have no place to lay his head. He would be rejected by his own people, delivered over by their authorities, and betrayed by his own friend.
But this Great Joy could not be extinguished. It cannot. It is too high, too long, too deep — even for death itself. And our Great Joy is now with us to the end of the age, strengthening us in every fear, cheering us in every grief, holding us in all our suffering. Until the day he unseats every sorrow, he promises, “No one will take your joy from you” (John 16:22).