…your joy no man taketh from you. (John 16: 22)
The word ‘joy’ is often thrown around in sermons, especially at the end, for no other reason than that it seems like a good thing to do. One of my lecturers remembered a priest from his youth who never preached a sermon without the phrase ‘holy purity’. Whatever the subject of the sermon it always ended with ‘holy purity’. Nobody was quite sure what it meant, but no sermon was complete without it! Much the same thing could be said about the use of the word ‘joy’. Of course it is good to hear the word in sermons and it is obvious that certain things are joyful and that joy is worth having. But what does it actually mean?
‘Joy’ or ‘gladness’ is an integral part of the relationship between the Church and God. A similar thing could be said about the relationship between Israel and God in the Old Testament. It can refer to a particular moment or event which could be described as joyful, but is better used to describe the complete relationship between God and his people. It is a gift which proceeds from God to his people. Two passages from St. Paul convey this idea:
For the kingdom of God is not meat and drink; but righteousness, and peace, and joy in the Holy Ghost. (Romans 14: 17)
Now the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, that ye may abound in hope, through the power of the Holy Ghost. (Romans 15: 13)
Interestingly the SOED refers to ‘exultation in spirit’ which perfectly sums up the biblical feeling of joy and gladness: it is on a different plane to just being pleased or content. As emotional states go this is as good as it gets!
What else can be said? If love is the primary virtue, being both something we are called to embody and also a test of the authenticity of our faith, and if peace is the essential state of those who live by faith then joy can be considered the principal fruit. Love for God and men brings peace (meaning harmonious relationships) and leads to joy which is the blessed state of knowing that everything is in order – that everything is as it should be.
An essential part of the new creation which we reflect upon during the Easter season is the attainment of a way of being that reflects the perfect life of Jesus and is the opposite of our fallen nature which is so prone to mess things up. This state of love, peace and joy is permanent in the risen Lord, not just because we are inspired by his example, but because we are incorporated into him in baptism. We are in the Lord through baptism and are fed by him at the altar.
He that eateth my flesh, and drinketh my blood, dwelleth in me, and I in him. (John 6: 56)
If joy is such an enviable emotion why does it so often seem to be absent? Miserable Christians abound. We are often not happy. If joy is absent then there is a fault with the other two aspects of my trio. Where joy is absent there is somewhere a failure to love; somewhere peace has been fractured. There may be many reasons for this and we often feel that we can justify this lack of joy by pointing to the circumstances of our lives. But remember what St. Paul wrote:
Rejoice in the Lord always: and again I say, Rejoice. (Philippians 4: 4)
This does not mean that we should always look as if we have heard the funniest joke ever, guffawing our way through life. How false that would be. And critically we can be joyful in sadness, adversity or pain – that is the point because life is made up of the bad as well as the good. What rejoicing means is that the orientation of our lives is towards the God who brings us joy in his presence rather than towards our old, unredeemed selves which brought us long-term misery even if we indulged ourselves for a while and thought we were quite enjoying it all.
That last thought does provide a helpful contrast. We might be tempted to look back and think what fun life used to be, but I suspect that we too often forget how it was characterised by feelings of anger, dissatisfaction and a disturbance of spirit. How much better things are in the Lord whose words now ring true,
your sorrow shall be turned into joy. (John 16: 20)
Once you know that you have forgiveness in the Lord and new life through the power of his resurrection, then the joy which the Spirit brings is yours. Let joy fill your hearts. And remember two things. First, remember that joy, once given, is yours to keep. Secondly, remember to smile – joy is the best present you will ever have!
Father Andrew Burton SSC
25th April 2021
Image by Preslie Hirsch on Unsplash