Leaving Salem

“I’ve got the joy, joy, joy, joy, down in my heart.” So goes the children’s tune I first learned in a Sunday School class more than thirty years ago. “It’s down in my heart to stay,” the familiar refrain ends. But joy, leaking out of these fractured human containers, has a way of escaping.

The car breaks down. The boss needs you to work the entire weekend. The school calls about your misbehaving child. Bills clog the mailbox. It’s akin to having an emotional vacuum cleaner hooked up to your chest. Before long, the joy, joy, joy, is gone, gone, gone, sucked out of you quicker than a flushing toilet.

The holiday season does not insulate us from this threat to joy. Oh sure, everyone we pass wishes us a “Merry Christmas,” or a “Happy Holidays” or “Have a Happy New Year.” We return those rehearsed lines with a cliché of our own and trudge on. But joy is missing in our words and in our hearts.

When I was a teenager one of the greatest marketing campaigns to ever be unleashed was produced by the Wendy’s hamburger chain. A trio of senior adult women gathered around a “big fluffy bun.”

After they removed the lid off this massive bread roll they were greeted with the tiniest speck of a hamburger patty. Actress Clara Peller then uttered her famous line: “Where’s the beef?”

This line has been adapted and employed in movies, popular culture, and even a presidential debate. Any time someone makes an offer, and its substance doesn’t live up to its billing, I’m reminded of this line and the scandalized demand of Ms. Peller.

I’ve been reminded of the line this holiday season as well. Looking around at my fellow-believers, and often at myself, I wonder where the joy is. Why are those who celebrate the Christ-child so unhappy? Where is the enjoyment for those who claim this to be the greatest season of the year? Where is the gladness in the gathered masses who instead sing Christmas carols with the same enthusiasm of a funeral dirge?

For the life of me, I can’t find the joy. We look fatigued at best and apathetic at worst. Maybe our shopping list has been overwhelming; or juggling our busy December schedule has gotten the better of us; or maybe some of us are just too angry at a municipality somewhere that banned a nativity scene.

Where is the joy? Where is the party? Where is the enthusiasm and celebration of faith? Where is the beef, Ms. Peller? Where is the beef, indeed?

But if you listen, you might hear joy’s beautiful song. Listen for it in the ringing bell outside your favorite department store as you’re invited to give to the poor. Hear it in the giggle of your children as they wait in line to sit on Santa’s knee. Look at it sitting there around your holiday table, the faces of your friends, family, and loved ones. Joy is in every Christmas caroler, every gift given, every holiday meal shared, and in every reading of the nativity story.

Joy waits, like all well-mannered guests, to be invited in. It longs, not to seep out of our spirits like a leaking faucet, but to be turned loose as a torrent. But that will not happen until we grant it permission, until we turn the switch.

In the old King James Version of the Christmas story, the angel appears to the shepherds in Luke 2 and speaks the fantastic words, “Behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy, which shall be to all people. For unto you is born this day in the city of David a Saviour, which is Christ the Lord.”

Those simple shepherds tore through the dark Bethlehem streets, unable to quench the joy in their hearts. Eventually, they had to return to their sheep. They had to go back to work. But they did not lose their joy in the process. They went back to the fields “glorifying and praising God for all the things they had heard and seen.”

The “joy, joy, joy, joy was down in their heart to stay.” May it be in yours as well.

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