FROM the beginning, the resurrection of Jesus has been associated with joy. There are only two resurrection appearances in Luke and, at the conclusion of the second, we read that the disciples “worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy” (Luke 24.52). Here, as earlier on the road to Emmaus, when their hearts “burned within them” (Luke 24.32), Jesus “opens their minds to understand the scriptures”, and the disciples’ reaction is joy. At his second and final appearance, we even read, puzzlingly, that “in their joy they were disbelieving and still wondering” (Luke 24.41).
When the Holy Spirit fell upon the disciples, their joy recorded at the conclusion of St Luke’s Gospel went on to become a hallmark of the Christian life. We learn in Acts 15.22 that the disciples were “filled with joy and the Holy Spirit”. Paul tells the Romans that “the Kingdom of heaven is righteousness and peace and joy in the Holy Spirit” (Romans 14.17), and prays that they may be “filled with all joy and hope in believing” (Romans 15.13).
It occurs to me that perhaps, as much as anything else, Christ came to bring us joy. He speaks to his disciples of God’s great love for them so that “their joy may be complete.” It is there at the beginning of his earthly ministry, as at the end. In The Brothers Karamazov, Dostoevsky writes memorably of Jesus’s first miracle at Cana: “Ah yes. I was missing that, and I don’t want to miss it. I love that passage: it’s Cana of Galilee, the first miracle. Ah, that miracle! It was not men’s grief but their joy Christ visited. He worked His first miracle to help men’s gladness.”
JOY is surely unique among the fruits of the Spirit listed by Paul (Galatians 5.23). Each of the others implies something active: love, peace, forbearance, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control can all be attained by an effort of will — even if it is Spirit-filled effort. Peace can perhaps be experienced without effort, though we are called to be active peacemakers.
Joy, however, is different: you can’t work at being joyful. It is a glorious rebuke to the Protestant work ethic. It is a state of being which no amount of work or concentration will produce. It is gift. It is sheer grace.
I REMEMBER being very struck by a testimony given at a confirmation I conducted by a young woman whose heart was quite clearly bubbling over with joy. She recounted how her colleagues at work couldn’t quite work out what was wrong with her. Conversely, Paul asks the Galatians what has happened to all their joy. Doesn’t this imply that lack of joy suggests a waning in Christian conviction?
Evelyn Waugh, asked how he reconciled being such a miserable individual with being a Christian, is said to have replied, “Think what I would be like if I were not a Christian.” A witty response, but not, to my mind, convincing.
I once read that the reason why it took so long for Cardinal Newman to be beatified was that he had not exhibited enough joy in his life. I don’t know whether that’s true, but I do know that the Christians who have impressed me most are those who have clearly been filled with a deep-down joy, even in adversity. Archbishop Desmond Tutu seems always to be full of joy and laughter. Surely this is a sign that he has been able to keep a Godly perspective on things, rather than being weighed down with the terrible situations which he has had to confront.
Laughter is associated with happiness, which is different from joy, although they are not unconnected. Like joy, laughter enables us to rise above things and see them from a different perspective — to perceive them in proportion, perhaps.
IT MIGHT reasonably be asked how we can possibly be filled with joy in the face of some of the terrible things that life throws at us, and joy certainly cannot be the only thing we experience as Christians. It is no accident that the joy of the disciples came after the desolation of the Passion.
The Passion and resurrection witnessed by the disciples were two exceptional experiences, but we find echoes of them in our own human experience, since death and resurrection are the pattern of things as we understand them as Christians.
That being the case, joy and sorrow are bound to be mingled in our life. As William Blake memorably wrote in Auguries of Innocence:
Man was made for Joy & Woe
And when this we rightly know
Thro’ the World we safely go.
Joy & Woe are woven fine
A Clothing for the soul divine
Under every grief & pine
Runs a joy with silken twine.
JOY and woe have been much on my mind since my wife, Denise, died on Easter Day three years ago, leaving me and my two daughters (then aged eight and 14) bereft. I recently watched the BBC1 documentary Rio Fernando: Being Mum and Dad. It spoke to me deeply. He has experienced the depths since the death of his young wife, as I have since Denise’s death, acting as both mother and father.
For most of the time, even as Christians, we prefer to pretend that death does not exist. That is foolish; for, as Denise wrote in her remarkable book A Tour of Bones, published posthumously, “questions about the limits of life and the limits of love go right to the heart of how we understand ourselves as human beings. Much of the time, we pretend that death isn’t a part of life. Yet, death is a crucial part of the human condition; when we avoid talking about death we avoid talking about life.”
In the face of death, Denise suggested that we need tears and laughter as well as talk: “How else can any of us face mortality? The unexpected joys of life, the grim brutalities of death? Tears and laughter and friends. How grateful I am for these tears and laughter.”
Tears and laughter, sorrow and joy. Since her death, sorrow has often prevailed, but joy has crept up on me unawares, as it can do even in times of desperate sadness. It did so especially when, last year, my 17-year-old daughter herself gave birth to a baby daughter. It was not what she had planned or I had expected, but Lily, now one year old, has brought untold joy and laughter in the midst of sadness. It is indeed true that “under every grief & pine runs a joy with silken twine.”
Flashes of joy are intimations of the profound truth that, though joy and woe are “woven fine, a clothing for the soul divine” in this world, it will not be so in God’s future. The Christian hope — resurrection hope — tells us that “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord” (Romans 8.38-39).
Love will prevail. God will prevail. Joy will prevail.
Dr John Inge is Bishop of Worcester.
A Tour of Bones: Facing fear and looking for life by Denise Inge is published by Bloomsbury at £16.99 (CT Bookshop £15.30).