Jesus said, “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. I have said these things to you so that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be complete.”
Throughout the Acts of the Apostles we see that the early followers of Jesus were people consumed with great joy. They gathered together with glad and generous hearts to devote themselves to prayer and the breaking of bread (Acts 2:46). They shared what they had with each other so that there was not a needy person among them (Acts 4:32-34). They proclaimed the good news of Jesus’ resurrection with boldness, and though they often suffered because of their faith, even in their suffering ‘they rejoiced that they were considered worthy to suffer dishonor for the sake of the name’ (Acts 5:41). These early followers of Jesus were filled with a joy that motivated and guided everything they did.
It is difficult, perhaps impossible, to say exactly when it happened, but at some point in the course of the Church’s history, Christians began to lose touch with this sense of joy. Certainly by the medieval period the focus of Christian prayer and spirituality was overwhelmingly on the crucified Christ, his suffering, and our sinfulness. These are all fundamental aspects of the faith, but alone they give an incomplete picture. We still live, in many ways, with this inheritance.
In John’s gospel Jesus reminds us that he desires for his joy to be in us, so that our joy may be complete. It might seem strange, inappropriate even, to speak of joy in such a time of pain and suffering. If joy really is intrinsic to the Christian life, though, perhaps we need to consider what it means to be joyful in such a time as this. I think we need to start by remembering that joy is not a fabricated sense of happiness that pretends that all is well and tries to wash away or ignore the real pain and suffering we have known. No, joy is something that flows from deep within us, from a foundation in faith in God who in Jesus overcame the powers of death and came to give us abundant life. Joy is something that endures. To live joyfully, then, does not mean that we will not know suffering, but it does mean we can live guided by faith, trusting that God is always with us and nothing, not even the powers of death, can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord (Romans 8:38-39).
The day of resurrection!
Earth, tell it out abroad;
the Passover of gladness,
the Passover of God.
From death to life eternal,
from earth unto the sky,
our Christ hath brought us over,
with hymns of victory.
Now let the heavens be joyful,
let earth her song begin,
the round world keep high triumph,
and all that is therein;
let all things seen and unseen
their notes in gladness blend,
for Christ the Lord is risen,
our joy that hath no end.
(John of Damascus, The Hymnal 1982 210)