12 December 2023

Joy at Christmas

Lieut-Colonel Jayne Roberts

A photo shows a cut-out of Major Joy Webb. Behind the cut-out is a record player with a Christmas tree out of focus in the background.

Lieut-Colonel Jayne Roberts reflects on the seasonal songs of Major Joy Webb.

Every year in early December, large crowds gather in London’s Trafalgar Square at a tall Christmas tree – a traditional gift from Norway – for the tree-lighting ceremony. A Salvation Army band has often provided carols for the occasion, but in 1964 the music had a very different sound: the event was being televised and the Joystrings were to premiere a new song, ‘A Starry Night’, written by Joy Webb.

The single reached number 34 in the charts and this captivating song about the boy who was born in a cattle shed has remained a Christmas favourite ever since. The lyrics of the second verse say about the shepherds: ‘And their hearts believed again for the peace of men,/ For a boy was born, King of all the world.’

In these days, as we intercede for places where hatred and destruction are still so rife, I wonder if our prayers find an echo in those poignant words?

In October this year, Joy was promoted to Glory, and many tributes were paid to her creative gifts and the lasting legacy of her words and music. At least a dozen of her songs have a Christmas theme. Perhaps there will be a moment this Advent when you hear one and the themes of her writing will come to mind.

‘A Starry Night’ is probably the best known, closely followed by ‘Noel’, beloved of several generations of singing company members. Some of the songs – such as ‘Sweet Mary’s Boy’, ‘Rainbow Christmas’ and ‘That Night in Bethlehem’ – were originally written for children’s voices and they capture the beauty and wonder of the Nativity. Who could fail to be moved when children’s voices sing ‘Sweet Mary’s boy, you bring us joy;/ Welcome, welcome, sweet Mary’s boy’?

‘The Surprise’ includes the familiar story of the baby and the angels, but also challenges us to consider the impact of God arriving in our world in this way. The refrain says: ‘Here for a moment again today, in the midst of all you must do,/ Let the surprise catch your heart once more, making the old story new.’

Verse 3 refers to the heart listening to a story it has often heard before, then suddenly catching ‘a glimpse of its meaning’. Here is a theophany, a surprising encounter with God who comes to us in the ordinary everyday pattern of our lives. May there be a moment of encounter for each of us this Christmas amid all we must do.

‘Christmas Can Be Every Day for You’ encourages us to live out the message of love and joy and peace. There are so many opportunities to share the gospel in our communities in all kinds of practical ways at Christmas. Yet how might we continue to offer hospitality and care in every season? As the song reminds us: ‘If the love this child imparts can be held within your heart,/ Then Christmas can be every day for you.’

‘World Without Christmas’, ‘The Reason for Christmas’ and ‘That Night in Bethlehem’ invite us to consider the impact the birth of Jesus had upon our world and on individuals who follow Christ. Jesus came to walk among us humbly, as one who serves. How we live as his faithful disciples, making a difference wherever we go, is a theme we repeatedly find in Joy’s Christmas songs.

She was a gifted wordsmith who could create an engaging narrative and articulate the questions that still fill our hearts and minds when we think about our world in the context of Christ’s Incarnation.

Some of Joy’s songs are heard at other times of year, but also have powerful messages that capture humankind’s longing for peace and healing to flow into our world. One of these is ‘Candle of the Lord’, which captures the vision of God’s people receiving Christ – the Light of the world – and ministering in his name.

The second verse paints a dynamic picture of individuals joining together and bringing transformation:

How bright the light is from soul to soul,
A myriad tiny flames expanding to a whole,
How strange the truth is when joined as one,
And what a miracle this shining could become;
It could transform the darkness that we know,
And clearly light the way mankind must try to go.

Here is a vision that has inspired my colleagues in the Territorial Prayer Network in recent days. We are seeking to kindle furnaces of prayer throughout this territory, people who will intercede for the mission of The Salvation Army and pray for unity in the Holy Spirit. Each person can be a tiny flame with the potential to bring the transforming power of Jesus.

Joy also captured a prayer for transformation in ‘Come Into Our World’. The song portrays a world ruled by darkness, where ‘people sit in loneliness, children cry for bread, men fight men in hatred, by suspicion led’. It is heart-breaking to think that those words could have been written in recent days. But there is always hope, always a prayer, always an expression of our need of Jesus: ‘And if we needed you, we need you now,/ Come, Lord Jesus, come.’

Written by

Jayne Roberts

Lieut-Colonel Jayne Roberts

Spiritual Life Development Secretary, THQ

Discover more

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