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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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 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.
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
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.