In his third and final book on Jesus of Nazareth (2012), Pope Benedict XVI marks “the true beginning of the New Testament” by reference to the Angel Gabriel’s salutation to Mary, Mother of Jesus; specifically, the Greek word for “Rejoice!” This Greek word constitutes a joyous greeting; in the text it loudly sounds a note of joy, opening “to the peoples of the world,” in Pope Ratzinger’s words, the Old Testament message of Zephaniah. “Rejoice, daughter of Zion, shout, Israel…the King of Israel, the Lord, is in your midst.” (3:14-17)
“Rejoice”! (Xaipe!) was the same salutation spoken by the angel to the shepherds on the first Christmas eve. “I bring you good news of great joy,” he said. (Lk 2:10) Furthermore, this very greeting was echoed at the time of Jesus’ Resurrection. In John’s Gospel we read: “The disciples were glad when they saw the Lord.” (Ibid. 20:20) Too, recall Jesus’ words prior to the Resurrection: “I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice…” (Jn 16:22)
All these texts, from Christmas to the Resurrection, help explain why the Christian message is essentially termed “the Good News” or (from early English) “the Gospel” (i.e., “Godspell”).
The reason for the “Good News” (“Godspell” or “Gospel”) is that salvation, promised centuries earlier, is now being announced as fulfilled. Again, the prophet Zephaniah, who spoke for God around the seventh century B.C., exclaimed that “The Lord is [now] in your midst.” (3:15-17) Pope Benedict has shown that the original text in Hebrew translates, “He is in your womb.”
Moreover, the prophet Zephaniah is subtly referencing a text from the Old Testament Book of Exodus which describes God’s dwelling in the Ark of the Covenant as residing “in Israel’s womb.” Recall that the Archangel Gabriel, in addressing Mary in the event of the Annunciation, said, “You will conceive in your womb.” (Lk 1:31) Thus Mary became the Ark of the New Testament, God’s dwelling place in our world.
(Recall also that Gabriel told Mary that the Holy Spirit would overshadow her. The Greek word for overshadow is meant to remind us all of the mysterious cloud that once hovered over the Ark of the Covenant; in transliterated Hebrew, this cloud was called the shekinah. By this reference, we become aware that Mary is indeed the Ark of the New Testament – a title by which we invoke our Lady in the Litany of Loretto. Incidentally, the shekinah momentarily emerges again at the time of Jesus’ Transfiguration; see Lk 9:34.)
The Christmas Carol, “Joy to the World,” is a solid doctrinal instruction, therefore. St. Bernard of Clairvaux, whose homilies on the Annunciation are still read, studied and analyzed, provided deep insight into this instruction. Pope Benedict is quick to rely on Bernard’s words in his exploration of Christmas joy. Following the fact of original sin, God “seeks to enter the world anew.” For this, God needs human freedom; specifically, he can only redeem Adam’s progeny by means of a “free” Yes to the Divine Will. God never tampers with freedom. Bernard depicts God’s waiting as to what Mary’s choice will be.
“Joy to the World” (with music probably adapted from Handel) is commonly listed with English carols. Its origins are not really certain, but the traditional words appear in 1719, in a collection entitled Psalms of David Imitated in the Language of the New Testament. It is based on Psalm 98.
To return specifically to our principal aspect of Christmas in this column; namely, the aspect of joy: it is also sounded loudly in the narrative of Jesus’ birth in Bethlehem. Indeed, Jesus’ nativity was announced to the world by an Angel, who explicitly referred to the joy that Jesus’ birth brought unto the world and established for all time. This joy was, of course, wrapped up in the hymn which the Angel sang: “Glory to God in the highest…” (Lk 2:12-14) Therein (in Pope Ratzinger’s words), the joy expressed in Angelsong “continues down the centuries in constantly new forms and it resounds ever anew at the celebration of Jesus’ birth.” To this day believers “join in their caroling on the Holy Night, proclaiming in song the great joy that, from then unitl the end of time, is bestowed on all people.” (Ibid)
Msgr. David Q. Liptak is Executive Editor of The Catholic Transcript and censor librorum for the Archdiocese of Hartford.