In this reflection I share the surprise of joy I experienced within a moment of spiritual awareness at an Easter Vigil. This forms part of a conviction that Easter Christians always entertain the possibility of joy when being open to the new.
It is Easter morning 1984. I have journeyed through part of Lent and Holy Week and listened and prayed a familiar story. We gathered in a convent Chapel set in acres of Kent countryside in the darkness to affirm, proclaim and celebrate the Resurrection of Christ. In some brief seconds something remarkable happened for me. As the priest lifted the communion vessels I became aware that the darkness had given way to the morning. The sun rose and Light filled the Chapel. By the time we said the Lord’s Prayer we were joined by the birds in a chorus of sound. The ordinary cycle of night and day took on a new meaning – we experienced what we were proclaiming. Darkness had given way to light; Christ conquered death. The new life of Christ made present in the broken bread and outpoured wine. It was an experience of profound Joy, quiet but clear, light but holy. The celebration of life offered in this Easter Eucharist was transformative – a brief moment of pure joy that has carried me through many times of perplexity. Even that distant memory has the capacity for surprise and refreshing joy. That moment was a movement to being aware, of experiencing truth. I began to absorb in head and heart the powerful love that God offers us in Christ. It was a moment of harmony where the cry of thankfulness gave way to gratitude and joy.
The Christian story is a story built upon joy. We are and we should be a people who overflow with joy. This joy is a byproduct of the deep gratitude that we all experience when we realize how much God loves us and when we accept God’s invitation to become integral characters in God’s story. Joy is a consequence of our sense of the beauty and wonder of God’s presence with us.
It was Nietzsche, himself the son of a minister, has expressed his concern about how we live out the Easter message, “His disciples should look more redeemed”. A visit to our Churches this weekend may give us foundation for this criticism. Many Christians are surrounded by an air of heaviness, of oppressive sternness, of lack of humour and irony about themselves! Finding time for the transforming possibilities of worship, of giving more time to be aware of the power of love and joy might find expression in our lives and Churches.
This is not escapism. We know that in this life very little is certain and fixed. It is hard to keep the faith in a materialistic, distracted and busy world. Easter joy asks us to redraw our lives into a new way of seeing. This envisioning might happen when we consider how we understand God and where we look for the presence of God. More time spent with scripture as a preparation for our Sunday worship, in silence, in giving expression to the parts of our lives that give us cause for delight. I often place in my prayer book a list of the things that lift my heart towards joy. God can speak to us in and through these small actions. Joy can be nurtured through an embracing of doubt, honesty and openness. For all of us there are aspects of our faith that can feel fragile and thin. As we are receptive to our questions about discipleship then this fosters an openness that can be a springboard into a deeper wisdom. Those early disciples found their dawning of joy, freedom and release spilled out of their bewilderment, anguish and searching. We might want to share our spiritual journey in conversation with others building up the trust to discover and be surprised by listening to each other.
We know that all of life is God’s, and God is the creative Ground of life. God meets us in the tapestry of our living and can work creatively through this. The joy in God and the joy of life can belong together. Joy is born out of union with reality itself especially when we open ourselves up to the new and unfamiliar. This may include getting to know other Christians in different circumstances to our own, at home or abroad. It might mean opening up ourselves to something new in worship whether in music or ways of praying.
We Christians do not change our minds about things, embrace new ideas, and adopt new attitudes easily! It was Newman who said ‘Growth is the only evidence of life’ and ‘to be perfect will be to have changed often’. How odd then that people pride themselves on the fixity of beliefs. Joy might be about being open minded and being ready for surprises. When new ideas, approaches to things, new discoveries about human nature come to us, they often come from the outside and our experience challenges us to change. That Easter Eucharist taught me that nurturing faith is as much a matter of the heart as the intellect. We often glimpse the truth of God through our readiness to open our heart to the divine movement of love. Some have found religious art as a way into a deeper comprehension of the way the story of Christ can shape us. We should look afresh so that things can dawn on us. My exposure to the rich tradition of Anglican choral music here in Windsor has unfolded the way that sound brings the world alive in new ways from moment to moment.
Spending time looking and waiting and being opens the doors of perception. The hardest wood takes longest to grow. We should place ourselves in difficult places and conversations where the risk of challenge and change is possible. This might mean looking at our ‘good Friday’ wounds as part of learning to live with whatever has hurt us in the past. In contemplating these wounds, of love lost, of mistaken choices, of hurts caused, we learn to mend and have courage to move on. The obvious place to open oneself up to this joyful resurrection life is through our affinity with creation. But that change can emerge from the honesty of our struggle with living, people and modernity. There might be nobility tower block or estate of identical homes, dignity in the plea of the Big Issue seller, community amongst the commuters distracted by their mobile phones and computers. In this crucible of life God will bless us as we wrestle with a new or disturbing idea. This can produce passionate commitment, surprise, and joy. Love that endures best took the longest to develop.
The element of joy in religion is prominent in the New Testament. ( In Matthew 5:12 we are asked to rejoice and be glad ). It provides the foundation for happiness and pleasure. It is present in all levels of our striving for fulfilment. It requires a movement of heart and will; a choice to nurture this gift in self and others. It can emerge out of our struggle. We must be prepared to be surprised by the possibilities of our Emmaus journey. The stranger might lead us in unexpected ways of knowing. Our vulnerable hearts are the places where joy springs and informs the intellect. The joy of life is possible in pleasure and pain, in happiness and unhappiness, in ecstasy and sorrow. Above all it can surprise us when we open ourselves up for change.