Reflections on the nature of Easter joy
American humorist Robert Benchley said, “There are only two types of travel—’First Class’ and ‘with children’.” The difficulty of travelling with children was for many years epitomized by the whining question that would emerge from the back seat during a long journey made by car: “Are we there yet?” (Granted, this was well before the advent of portable electronic devices able to hypnotize children into trance-like acquiescence.)
An old friend told me that as a little boy, whenever he whined, “Are we there yet?”, his father’s reply would mystify him. “Yes, son. We’ve been there for hours. We’ve all been having a wonderful time. Where the heck have you been?” Such high irony is wasted on young children, but I think Benchley would have admired the effort.
Now that we are in the Season of Easter, it seems that “Easter joy” is mandatory and any lack of requisite joy is very bad form. In the First Preface of Easter for the Ordinary Form of the Roman Rite, we find the words, “overcome with Paschal joy.” Being overcome with Paschal joy sounds wonderful, but I have to ask, “Are we there yet?” As we hear again and again during this Season of Easter that Jesus has conquered sin and death, couldn’t one say, “Hey! Easter was less than two weeks ago, and since then I’ve sinned and I know people who died. If sin and death have been conquered, then maybe someone should tell them!”
Of course, Christ emerged from the tomb not two weeks ago but two thousand years ago. There’s been an appalling amount of sin and death since then. A skeptical world and many serious, brokenhearted Christians might rightly wonder whether the association of “Easter” with “victory” is, to say the least, “pre-mature.”
The temptation for a theologian inclined to apologize on behalf of God when it seems that the truths of the faith don’t quite seem to square with the facts of daily life is to become abstract and vague. In other words, a well-intentioned theologian might end up doing more harm than good by appearing to make excuses for God if one finds “Easter joy” elusive. “Well,” such a theologian might say, “the victory of the Resurrection is so great that a creation still bound by time and space cannot hold it. That’s why we eagerly await the arrival of eternity so that the triumph of Easter has sufficient room to spread its wings, et cetera…” That’s poetic, and, on its face, true, but it is not very helpful for the bewildered and the grieving, and, by itself, it is dangerously incomplete.
As I have written elsewhere (see my last nine columns) the Cross and the Resurrection of Christ are inseparable. We must also add that while we live in this life, the power of the Cross and Resurrection can take root only in souls first prepared by the Holy Spirit. In other words, if we are to speak wisely of the Cross and Resurrection and live well in their light, then we must inevitably speak of the need for Pentecost—the pouring forth of the Holy Spirit upon the Church. Only the grace of the Holy Spirit can keep us moving through time towards the full victory that the Cross and Resurrection have announced and achieved.
I once spoke to a law enforcement officer about the attitude he needs in order to leave the house in the morning and be prepared to put himself into danger at any moment. “I must always be 100% confident that I can prevail in any conflict; 99% will get me killed.” After much thought, I’m inclined to believe that such confidence is necessary for the Christian in this life. And I think Pope Francis would agree.
In Evangelii Gaudium, paragraph 85, he writes:
Christian triumph is always a cross, yet a cross which is at the same time a victorious banner borne with aggressive tenderness against the assaults of evil. The evil spirit of defeatism is brother to the temptation to separate, before its time, the wheat from the weeds; it is the fruit of an anxious and self-centred lack of trust.”
An “anxious and self-centred lack of trust” is the hallmark of the spiritual orphan, one without a provident father, one who must make his way through this world without love or a sense of home. How different from one who knows that the “Abba” of Jesus is his very own Heavenly Father! How different from one how knows the power and presence of the Holy Spirit!
We can find the means to live—here and now—the victory of the Cross and Resurrection, and with that victory, true joy, by turning to Saint Paul, who writes in Romans 8: 26-39,
And we know that in all things God works for the good of those who love him, who have been called according to his purpose. For those God foreknew he also predestined to be conformed to the image of his Son, that he might be the firstborn among many brothers and sisters. And those he predestined, he also called; those he called, he also justified; those he justified, he also glorified.
God has won for us by the Cross and Resurrection of His Christ a true victory over sin and death. What we need to persevere until that victory is made complete in us is the power of the Holy Spirit—and that too has been given us. The nature of our Easter joy is not a witless giddiness or a mandatory smiley-face. The nature of our Easter joy is a confidence that nothing and no one, whether taken alone or together, has the power to deprive us of what God offers us through His Crucified and Risen Son. The love of God, which is stronger than sin and death, which we taste and see now only incompletely, will be ours—full and true—in the Kingdom of God, a Kingdom we pilgrims can reach only in the company of the Holy Spirit. We rejoice during the Easter Season because we have been promised by the power of the Holy Spirit that if we like Christ bear the cross, we will wear the crown.
That joy, which is always more than a passing feeling of elation, is a guiding light, a citadel against the storm, the confidence of an adopted child who expects to see the face of his father again. “Are we there yet?” How might a Christian answer? “Yes, child. God is already here with us, and, if we keep on walking, we can be with Him.”
When I write next, I will discuss the virtues that the Easter season calls forth from us. Until then, let’s keep each other in prayer.