Let men their songs employ,
while fields and floods, rocks, hills, and plains
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat the sounding joy,
repeat, repeat the sounding joy.
-Isaac Watts, ‘Joy to the World’
It is impossible for me to read those lyrics without hearing them sung in four-part harmony in my head. I am instantly transported back to bitter cold Christmas Eves in a remote valley tucked in the Appalachian mountains of Pennsylvania, where our little band of carolers from the Pilgrim Holiness Church would walk the streets, spreading ‘tidings of comfort and joy’ to coal miners’ families until we looped back to the tone deaf matriarch’s house who had a big pot of hot cocoa waiting.
Back then even the most conservative fundamentalist Christians where I grew up believed they did indeed offer the world a message of comfort and joy. They may have voted Republican every four years, but they weren’t really involved in politics. Besides working their jobs and in their gardens, they preserved food for winter, prayed for the sick, got together to make music or play games, and shared their abundance when somebody was lucky enough to bring down a 10-point buck in deer hunting season.
Other than for funerals, I haven’t been back to those mountains in many years. But now, through the internet’s compression of distance, I see those same people and their descendants posting the most hateful, twisted memes, like one with a picture of Trump’s border wall that boasts: ‘Heaven has a wall around it. Hell doesn’t. Think about it.’ Their message is the opposite of comfort and joy. It is hatred and anger and fear, judging exactly who is—and isn’t—worthy of goodwill. Sadly, their approved list is very short, with almost nobody but themselves on it.
Despite the fact that their ancestors emigrated from Germany (mostly) and other parts of Eastern and Western Europe, someone has misled them to believe that whatever hell their lives have become is owing to immigrants arriving now. And the peace on earth they welcome these days is the apocalypse. That’s right. Get it over with.
Outside of such rural enclaves, near the towers of academia, between the abandoned concrete hills of professional offices, across the asphalt plains of insecure gig workers, appear huge and growing sinkholes of isolation and despair. Some of the youngest and best and brightest have managed to escape the virus, only to succumb to depression. All sorts of troubling plagues are on the rise, among them domestic abuse, addiction, and suicide. We are crying out for ‘tidings of comfort and joy.’
This is the time: this is the season when we artists must show up as angels, with a message heralding at least as much peace and goodwill as the angels in the Christmas story. This is not a call to religious conversion, far from it. But we are the ones who, with the beautiful flame burning in us, need to hold it up to remind everyone for whom it is threatening to go out, that we humans are worth saving. Yes, we call out injustices. Yes, we pen the anthems of struggle. But right now our precious humanity is sinking, sinking. We need to hold out hope. And extend mercy.
Poets, like angels, light the skies and blow the trumpets that pierce the gloom: Mary Oliver’s Wild Geese, Naomi Shihab Nye’s Kindness, Joy Harjo’s For Calling the Spirit Back From Wandering the Earth in Its Human Feet, and so many more. Read. (Take it in). Write. (Send it out). This is the needed time. Repeat the sounding joy. Repeat the sounding joy.
Repeat, repeat the sounding joy.