Sometimes joy is a real challenge
“Easter joy” and I have had an ambivalent relationship for many years. In college, I had friends who lamented the start of Lent, when the word “Alleluia” was proscribed. They would count down to Easter, announcing, “Only 25 days to Easter and Alleluia!” They assured me that once Easter arrived, they would (and here I quote) “go praise-y!” I didn’t object, but sometimes, I did wonder if something was wrong with me for not being able or even inclined to schedule precisely my “joy” by the liturgical calendar.
Towards the end of my senior year in college, my relationship with Easter joy hit a crisis point. Shortly after Easter, and not long before graduation, I witnessed the violent death of my best friend. In an instant, the joy of Easter seemed forced, just as the anticipated triumph of graduation suddenly seemed irrelevant. My best friend, aged 21, the same age as me, was dead, and nothing would change that. A few days later, at his funeral Mass, one of his relatives said, “Welcome to Easter! Big whoppy-dee-doo!” That declaration wasn’t sarcasm or blasphemy—it was meant as a challenge. What could rightly be said about Easter while standing over the corpse of my friend who lived 12 fewer years than Jesus? Either the cause of joy celebrated at Easter was greater than the tragic death I had witnessed, or it was time to get rid of the lilies and the alleluias for good. Life—and death, hope—and horror—had caught up with me, and I had some decisions to make. I buried my best friend, returned to school, and got ready for final exams and graduation.
I referred to that time in my life as the time that God sounded like Clint Eastwood from the movie, “Dirty Harry.” Do you remember that iconic scene? Clint Eastwood, playing a police detective on the edge, points a gun at a criminal and says, “Do you feel lucky today? Do ya, punk?” With all of the understanding that I could muster at that young age, I described God as grabbing me by the scruff of the neck, rubbing my nose in the dirt of death and yelling at me, “Do you believe today? Do ya, punk?” And no sentiments, lilies, or hymns could console me. I had a radically stark decision to make. Either everything that the Church proclaims about the Cross and Resurrection is absolutely true, or human life is a bad joke that probably shouldn’t have happened. At the time, I thought those were the only honest options available to me. Thirty-two years later, I still believe that they are the only options available to any of us.
With God’s grace, I made a choice to accept what the Church has proclaimed from the beginning: nothing—absolutely nothing—is beyond the redemptive reach of the Cross and the Resurrection; where Christ Crucified is found, there Christ Risen is also to be found. As I have reflected on those truths over the years, sometimes, sometimes, I feel joy—that is, I feel a sense of delight in the presence of my Beloved, “who loved me and gave Himself for me” (Galatians 2:20). And sometimes, more often than not, I suppose, I don’t feel it. But I act as if I do. By that I mean, I don’t get all clap-happy and “praise-y” with a smiley face painted on me. No, I mean that I act on what God has revealed to me to be true—that what Christ has suffered and overcome is greater than any loss or disappointment that I can meet in this life. In other words, I keep on moving as a pilgrim, in the company of Christ, Who is both scarred and glorious, Who beckons me to walk with Him to our Father’s house, where, already, a banquet is prepared for us.
When I write next, I will speak of Easter and the hope of victory. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.
Father Robert McTeigue, S.J. is a member of the Maryland Province of the Society of Jesus. A professor of philosophy and theology, he has long experience in spiritual direction, retreat ministry, and religious formation. He teaches philosophy at Ave Maria University in Ave Maria, FL, and is known for his classes in both Rhetoric and in Medical Ethics.