J. R. R. Tolkien, the Oxford professor of Anglo-Saxon who became famous by inventing the Hobbits, once pointed out that the Gospel story begins and ends on a note of joy. It begins with the birth of Jesus under the stars in Bethlehem, a moment of purest joy, and it ends with his resurrection in the garden, a moment of triumphal joy.
No wonder, then, that Christians are supposed to be marked by a certain abiding joyfulness. Paul told the Galatians that joy is one of the great gifts of the Spiritit comes, in fact, in second place, right after love (Gal. 5:22). We may surely believe that at supper on the night before his death, Jesus, as he talked to his friends, also looked over their heads so to say, down the corridors of the centuries, to speak to his followers today: Your hearts will rejoice with a joy no one can take from you.... Ask and you shall receive, that your joy may be full (Jn. 16: 22-24).
At Easter time, this message of joy is announced with special fervor. The great proclamation that is sung like a sacred aria at the opening of the Easter Vigil begins with the summons ExultetRejoice! All the same, preachers who take joy for their Easter topic may find that for one or other reason it makes some hearers uneasy.
These may be listeners who identify Easter joy with a merriment they judge unseemly for those who take life seriously. These good people have a touch of the steely temperament possessed by a fourth-century anchorite who lived in the Egyptian desert and passed his days in prayer and penance. When this old man saw someone laughing, he said: In the presence of heaven and earth we are to give an account of our whole life to Godand you laugh?
Then there are people who mistakenly identify the joy that is a fruit of the Spirit with a natural happiness that they neither have nor think they are entitled to have. Their sentiments are like those of James Peck, a civil rights activist of the 1960’s, who told an interviewer that he was contemptuous of happy people: They have nothing. They’re drab. It’s like a blindness to be happy.
Pope Paul VI would not have agreed with that judgment, but he would probably have understood how it came to be formed. His own sense of the mystery of suffering was dramatically displayed on one occasion during the last year of his life. His friend Aldo Moro, leader of the Christian Democratic Party and a former prime minister, was kidnapped by the Red Brigades on March 16, 1978, and held for ransom. The pope sent an open letter to the terrorists pleading with them to spare Moro’s life. But when the government refused to pay ransom, the Brigades killed their prisoner and left his body in the trunk of a Renault parked on a Roman street on May 9.
The Moro family refused a public funeral; but on May 16 there was a memorial service in the pope’s cathedral, St. John Lateran. Paul VI delivered a prayer, in which he said in part: Oh Lord, you did not restore Aldo to us safely despite our prayers. We know you have your reasons, but they are hard to understand....
Not the words of a man unacquainted with sorrow. Yet a few weeks later, when on Aug. 2, four days before his own death, Paul VI held his last audience, the theme of his talk was Christian joy. It was one of his favorite subjects, perhaps because he was not sanguine by nature, and he once devoted a whole document to it. During the holy year of 1975, he issued an apostolic exhortation entitled Gaudete in DominoRejoice in the Lord.
This was a lengthy and discursive reflection precisely on that theme of Christian joyjoy in the Spirit. He was writing, Paul said, because it seemed to him that the difficulty of attaining joy is particularly acute today. As his thought winds its way through various digressions, the pattern is sometimes obscured but never lost sight of.
This Christian joy is not the same as the happiness of which James Peck was thinking, but it does not exclude it. As the Second Vatican Council’s Pastoral Constitution on the Church in the Modern World (1965) said, Christians use and enjoy all the good and beautiful things created by God, and their expectation of a new earth does not weaken, but rather stimulates their concern for cultivating this one (Nos. 37, 39).
Human joys, however, are fragile because they are finite. If Easter joy were no more than the sum of transient earthly joys, it would not be indestructible. But the death and resurrection of Jesus overcame what St. Paul called the final enemy, death itself. This victory guarantees the ultimate triumph of the good and supports a joy that can coexist even with suffering.
The martyrs, said Paul VI, are the best examples of this transforming power of hope for the resurrection. He might have recalled what Thomas More said, when in 1534 he shut his garden gate behind him and traveled down the Thames to Lambeth, the Tower and death. As he climbed into the boat, he whispered to his son-in-law, Son Roper, I thank our Lord the field is won.