“Christianity is a joyless religion.” Alexander Schmemann once stated that the greatest accusation made against followers of Jesus Christ is that they are people who have no joy! He noted how the French philosopher and atheist Frederick Nietzche once said “Christianity is a joyless religion.” He thought that Christians believe in God but don’t seem to enjoy life. Schmemann responded to this accusation by saying “Christianity without Joy is incomprehensible… It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world.”
Joy should be one of the most evident fruit the world sees in followers of Christ. Take a moment and think about this. When people see us and how we live, do they see joy? Will others describe us as people who radiate the fruit of the Holy Spirit – love, peace, hope, and joy?
Even though our Great Lenten journey is supposed to be a sober, serious discipline and a struggle that leads us to repentance, denial of self, and greater self-awareness, at the same time this holy season should be a time of cultivating and discover divine joy. Pay attention to some of our Lenten hymns: “With joy we enter into the Fast… Let us joyfully journey through the all-hallowed season of abstinence… There are 40 days in the Fast, let us keep each one of them with joy.”
We read throughout Holy Scripture about the Good News of Great Joy with the coming of Christ. Our Lord says, “I have told you these things so that my joy might be in you and your joy might be complete.” Saint Paul reminds us to “Rejoice always. Pray without ceasing. And give thanks in all circumstances. For this is the will of God.” Nehemiah the Prophet says, “The joy of the Lord is my strength.”
It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world!
To rejoice and radiate the joy of the Lord reflects who we are and what we believe. Joy reveals the essence of our faith. Without joy we clearly don’t understand who Jesus Christ is and what He has done in the world. Without joy Christianity is a religion without grace and power. Authentically following Jesus displays a way of life that impacts everything we do in our lives and fills it with joy.
Of course, this doesn’t mean that we will act giddy all the time. Life is a deep mystery that sometimes takes us down dark, difficult, challenging paths filled with suffering and even terrible evil. We never sugarcoat the Cross we have to carry in life. At the same time, we realize that “through the Cross joy has come into the world.” Because of the Cross, darkness, evil, suffering, and death have been defeated!
It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world!
Think about it. Why do followers of Jesus Christ radiate inner joy?
- Because we know the deepest foundation of hope – the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead. We no longer fear anything, even death itself. Human life is the expectation of that which is at the end, and at the end is the joy of the Bridal Chamber, the joy of the Resurrection.
- Because we know through the victory of Jesus Christ we experience “an explosion of cosmic joy at the triumph of life,” as Dumitri Staniloae says.
- Because through this triumph of life we discover the deepest meaning, purpose and direction that guides us every day.
- Because no matter how dark and depressing the world may appear, what lies within us is greater than what lies outside. “In the world you will have tribulation,” Christ said, “but be of good cheer for I have overcome the world.”
- Because Jesus Christ turns our whole being into a feast day of life. Whatever life brings, we travel these roads praising God and sail the rough seas singing His glory!
Through the Cross joy has come into the world.
So, how can we be filled with such joy? How can we learn to rejoice always and rejoice in all circumstances?
We need to open our hearts and be filled with the Holy Spirit, inviting the Source of all good things to dwell richly in us. Saint Isaac the Syrian reminds us to “constantly ponder on the Holy Word of God and always be filled with the incomprehensible wonder and joy of God”
Schmemann teaches us that “Joy is not something one can define or analyze. One enters into joy. And we have no other means of entering into that joy, no way of understanding it, except through the one action which from the beginning has been for the Church both the source and the fulfillment of joy – the very sacrament of joy, the Eucharist… The Liturgy is, before everything else, the joyous gathering of those who are to meet the risen Lord and to enter with Him into the bridal chamber.”
Mother Teresa once noted, “A joyful heart is the normal result of a heart burning with love.” Therefore, we cultivate lives burning with love. Love means sacrifice and when we embrace meaningful sacrifice in our lives, we discover ultimate joy.
Through the Cross, joy comes into the world.
Such joy is not a cheap joy, but a joy born out of pain. The source of Christian joy is forgetting self and focusing on others. Of course, the greatest obstacle to joy is death itself, yet the Resurrection changes the despair of death into joy. Thus, Saint Paul could write, “For me to live is Christ and to die is gain.” Whatever God touches he turns into joy, even death.
Saint Isaac the Syrian warns us that “there is no greater sin than to be insensitive to the joy of the Risen Christ.” Never let anything that happens in life make us forget that Christ is Risen.
We learn to rejoice, therefore, in our challenging circumstances because of the hope and strength of the Lord. Life is a mystery that may bring terrible, depressing, and seemingly hopeless circumstances but the Lord is a steady rock that can never be moved by any circumstances. We “rejoice in the Lord” in our challenging circumstances because of our Lord.
The Prophet Habakkuk once wrote, “Though the fig trees do not blossom, nor fruit be on the vines, the produce of the olive fail, and the fields yield no food; though the flock be cut off from the fold and there be no herd in the stalls, yet I will rejoice in the Lord, I will take joy in the God of my salvation.” (Habakkuk 3:17-18)
To rejoice is a choice. We choose to open our hearts and minds to the Presence of God and keep our focus there. We cannot command ourselves to be joyful but we can choose where to focus our attention. The Apostle Peter writes, “Do not think it strange concerning the fiery trial which is to try you, as though something terrible happened to you, but rejoice to the extent that you partake of Christ’s sufferings, that when His glory is revealed, you may also be glad with exceeding joy.” (1 Pet 4:13)
We may have pain and failure. Grief may sweep over us. Death may threaten us. Yet our joy is not tied to these uncontrollable variants of life. Our joy lies deep in the love of God. Nothing shall be separate us from this love and joy of Christ.
Today on this third Sunday of Great Lent as we lift up the Holy Cross, let us remember that through the Cross joy has come into the world. Remember, “it is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world!”