From Book of Psalms:
The pastures of the wilderness overflow,
the hills gird themselves with joy,
the meadows clothe themselves with flocks,
the valleys deck themselves with grain,
they shout and sing together for joy.
(From the Daily Office Lectionary – Psalm 65:12-13 (NRSV) – May 19, 2014)
What is joy? A bible study group at church grappled with that question recently and I’m still thinking about the question, so these concluding verses of today’s evening psalm got my attention. It’s not just a matter of defining emotion. Joy is a religious attitude, a stance toward God mentioned numerous of times in the Holy Scriptures; according to St. Paul, it is one of the “fruits of the Spirit.” (Gal 5:22) It’s important to know what we mean when we name it.
In the bible study discussion, I found it amazing that, although “laughter” was mentioned as we tried to answer this question, the common synonyms “happiness,” “mirth,” “giddiness,” and the like (even “gladness”) were not. We wrestled with the issue by exploring such questions as: “When do you feel it?” “Who are you with?” “Where does it come from?” “Where are you when you know joy?” and a really tough one “How do you feel when you experience it?”
That question almost seems redundant, doesn’t it? But as we tried to answer that in some meaningful way another question was asked, “Did Jesus feel joy on the cross?”
Catholic philosopher Peter Kreeft says that joy “is more than happiness, just as happiness is more than pleasure. Pleasure is in the body. Happiness is in the mind and feelings. Joy is deep in the heart, the spirit, the center of the self.” If he’s right, and I think he is, then the answer to our question about Jesus must be “Yes.” Jesus felt joy on the cross!
Consider Christ’s “seven last words”:
“Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Lk 23:34)
“Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” (Lk 23:43)
“Woman, here is your son” . . . “Here is your mother.” (Jn 19:26-27)
“My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” (Mk 15:34; Mt 27:46)
“I am thirsty.” (Jn 19:28)
“It is finished.” (Jn 19:30)
“Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.” (Lk 23:46)
Read in this, the traditional order in which they are presented in Good Friday meditations, only one simply cannot be read or understood as containing any joy: Mark’s and Matthew’s report of his cry of despair, “Why have your forsaken me?”
Jesus had told his disciples that joy is the result of a relationship with God:
I am the true vine, and my Father is the vinegrower. He removes every branch in me that bears no fruit. Every branch that bears fruit he prunes to make it bear more fruit. You have already been cleansed by the word that I have spoken to you. Abide in me as I abide in you. Just as the branch cannot bear fruit by itself unless it abides in the vine, neither can you unless you abide in me. I am the vine, you are the branches. Those who abide in me and I in them bear much fruit, because apart from me you can do nothing. Whoever does not abide in me is thrown away like a branch and withers; such branches are gathered, thrown into the fire, and burned. If you abide in me, and my words abide in you, ask for whatever you wish, and it will be done for you. My Father is glorified by this, that you bear much fruit and become my disciples. As the Father has loved me, so I have loved you; abide in my love. If you keep my commandments, you will abide in my love, just as I have kept my Father’s commandments and abide in his love. (Jn 15:1-10)
He concluded this discourse saying to them, “I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.” (v. 11)
In the Psalms, the hills, the sheep, the trees, all of nature is described as experiencing and giving voice to joy. This makes sense only if joy is a relationship with God. On the cross, only once, only in that cry of “why have you forsaken me,” do we find Jesus unable to sense that connection. In fact, the “seven last words” in their traditional order evince the very human journey every person has experienced at one time or another during a time of trouble, a journey from trust in God (“Forgive them”) into the valley darkness where God seems absent and back out again with a renewed sense of kinship with God (“Into your hands, I commend my spirit”).
What is joy? A connection with God, a relationship in which we are fulfilled not by our own efforts, not by the circumstances in which we find ourselves, not by anything other than the Presence and grace of God. Even in the hardest and most troubling of situations, even hanging on a cross, we can know joy.
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Father Funston is the rector of St. Paul’s Episcopal Church, Medina, Ohio.