When glory fills the skies

by
17 April 2014

Resurrection is the very definition of joy, argues Stephen Cherry, and it follows a night of fear and doubt

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ARRIVING at a church in Pietermaritzburg, in South Africa, I was confronted by a desperate man descending the stairs in a rush. He had been writing, and needed his footnote.

'"Heaviness may endure for the night, but joy comes in the morning.' What psalm is that? What verse?" He panted as he crashed down the stairs.

I stood, uselessly silent, wishing that my mind were better organised. I knew the verse, if could not place it.

I can now. It is verse five of Psalm 30.

Since then, I have sometimes used it as a mantra, saying it over and over again as I walk or sit, letting it synchronise with my breathing. It is satisfactory, but not one of my favourites. I am glad to live closely to it, however. A spirituality that is hopeful, positive, and patient about joy is a good basis for ministry - the only basis, perhaps, when so much of ministry is an invitation to share in the heaviness of the suffering of others.

When I was a curate, I preached an Easter Day sermon about grief. It was at evensong, and the church smelt powerfully of lilies. We had had a huge funeral in Holy Week for a merchant seaman, a cook on the Herald of Free Enterprise [the ferry that capsized on 6 March 1987, killing 193 passengers and crew].It was weeks after the event. There was anger as well as grief in the building. People were beyond consolation.

It was an honest sermon. I wondered how the disciples would feel, so soon after the trauma of Good Friday. "Not much Easter joy in that," was one comment. Maybe, but it made me wonder what "Easter joy" is - and how it is different from "simple" joy.

The danger, perhaps, is that Easter joy is something contrived or manufactured for the occasion, an ornament of feeling - similar toan Easter bonnet, or lilies, or the church silver on the altar.

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This does not sound right. Easter joy must be the joy that follows after the darkness of the cross, and the different darkness of the tomb.

Wesley's hymn "Christ, whose glory fills the skies" is one of my favourites. I see it as an Easter hymn, as well as a morning hymn. I love the second verse for its realism and its spirituality, as well as its economy with words:

Dark and cheerless is the morn
Unaccompanied by thee;
Joyless is the day's return
Till thy mercy's beams I see 

This hymn tells me that joy is indivisible from faith, and faith from some level of spiritual experience. The lines "Till thy mercy's beams I see", and "Till they inward light impart" are carefully crafted. The word "till" deserves its repetition.

Until the mercy's beams are seen, all is dark - in many ways. The line hints at that pre-dawn doubt that we know - maybe the sun won't rise this day; and its spiritual equivalent - maybe the Son of God won't rise in our hearts. Maybe we won't feel the joy of Easter again.

Bishop Joseph Butler (1692-1752) disparaged the idea of the heart's being strangely warmed. It makes me wonder what that dry old stick knew of joy. Joy is not a conclusion: it is a movement of spirit which contradicts the facts - or at least some of the facts: the negativity, gravity, loss, and pain.

 

C. S. LEWIS was on to something when he used Wordsworth's words Surprised by Joy as the title of his autobiography. Joy does not come to order. It has its own energy, pace, dynamic, and personality.

I have been surprised by the deepest joy on the saddest occasions. I vividly recall visiting a friend with a terminal disease. There was joy in meeting, joy in sharing, and joy in recognition, unspoken, of good days in the past. There was also joy in recog-nition, unspoken, of a faith stronger than the reality in the room: the drugs, the drip, the manifest sickness.

But if joy is surprising and unplanned, we might struggle to make sense of the Easter celebrations. We are used to, and tired of, contrived jollity and forced smiles; we feel not delight, but awkwardness, when we realise that we are papering over the fissures of our communities with a thin tolerance, where a deeper reconciliation is not only needed, it is also a bit beyond anyone's imagination.

The thing about joy is that before it comes we cannot imagine it. We can remember joyful occasions, but cannot fully rekindle the joyfulness of joy. It is something that just happens, bringing with it a playful lightness that has its own kind of spiritual seriousness.

 

ALL of this is fine - until Easter comes round again, its date determined not by how we are feeling, but what the moon is up to. Joy answers to no one, and its coming and going cannot be timed.

The answer might be that joy is not a feeling: it is deeper than that. And yet to alienate the reality of joy from human emotion seems a calculated mistake. Joy cannot be a conclusion or a duty, nor can it just be an idea. For joy to be joy, it must be felt - even if the feeling is a good deal more profound than what we call "happiness".

The only way I can find out of this conundrum is to look again at Easter, and the resurrection that it marks, and to suggest that what it invites us to do is not to respond with cheerful joy to something in which we place our faith. Rather, Easter asks us to recognise that resurrection is the definition and the reality of joy.

It is not that we know what joy is, and can then look for it at Easter. It is that we don't know what joy is unless and until we have entered the Easter mystery - and let the Easter mystery enter us.

This means that any effort to connect joy with resurrection is mistaken. So, too, is any effort to encourage people to be joyful because of the resurrection. What I am putting forward here is the radical notion that the resurrection both deconstructs and reconstructs joy, so that Easter itself becomes the definition of joy.

Joy is resurrection, and resurrection is joy. To work too hard at a liturgy or a sermon that will express "Easter joy" is to make a spiritual error. Joy is God's gift to sad, broken, and disappointed people. Our task is to own the sadness, faithfully abandon ourselves to the darkness, and then to wait on, and ultimately accept, the gift.

This way of looking at Easter joy and resurrection has implications not only for what we expect of the liturgy at Easter, but also for what we expect of pastoral ministry. Healing, restoration, forgiveness, joy - all these come when someone is ready to receive the transformative grace of God.

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The task of ministry is not to try to hasten the arrival of the gift, but to be the companion to the suffering one for as long as it takes for that person let go of all that he or she is clinging to which is less than the love of God and the joy of resurrection.

It follows that what the minister brings to a pastoral situation is not so much skill or tact - although these, together with a high level of self-awareness and compassion, do help. The main thing that the minister brings to a pastoral situation of deep and broken darkness is the hope of resurrection. This is a hope that is made real in patient companionship, which waits, with humility and grace, for the joy that comes in the morning.

Canon Stephen Cherry is the Director of Ministerial Development and Parish Support for the diocese of Durham.

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