At the end of his chapter in The Orthodox Way on the incarnation, death and resurrection of Jesus, Kallistos Ware quotes Fr Alexander Schmemann:
From its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy, of the only possible joy on earth. … Without the proclamation of this joy Christianity is incomprehensible. It is only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world, and it lost the world when it lost the joy, when it ceased to be a credible witness to it.
Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said that Christians had no joy. … “For, behold, I bring you tidings of great joy” — thus begins the Gospel, and its end is : “And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. …” (Luke 2:10, 24:52). And we must recover the meaning of this great joy.
If you’re a Christian, those words sting a bit, don’t they? How did the people to whom God’s joy was proclaimed, and who were called to proclaim it to others by their lives and words, develop a reputation for being such misery guts? For example: for many people, the most public manifestation of the Christian faith in Britain over the past weekend was a TV show in which Christians complained of being “persecuted” over such matters as the application to crucifix necklaces of workplace prohibitions on visible jewellery.
(On that issue, incidentally, what most strikes me is how blithely we accept, in an increasing number of areas of life, strict uniform policies that allow no room for harmless individual expression. But that’s for another day.)
This defensive and embattled approach to life is put to shame by many who’ve suffered actual persecution – rather than just the loss of the privileges of “Christendom”. Take, for example, the “letter from a Soviet concentration camp” that Bp Kallistos quotes a couple of pages later:
It is only by being a prisoner for religious convictions in a Soviet camp that one can really understand the mystery of the fall of the first man, the mystical meaning of the redemption of all creation, and the great victory of Christ over the forces of evil. It is only when we suffer for the ideals of the Holy Gospel that we can realize our sinful infirmity and our unworthiness in comparison with the great martyrs of the first Christian church. Only then can we grasp the absolute necessity for profound meekness and humility, without which we cannot be saved; only then can we begin to discern the passing image of the seen, and the eternal life of the Unseen.
On Easter Day all of us who were imprisoned for religious convictions were united in the one joy of Christ. We were all taken into one feeling, into one spiritual triumph, glorifying the one eternal God. There was no solemn Paschal service with the ringing of church bells, no possibility in our camp to gather for worship, to dress up for the festival, to prepare Easter dishes. On the contrary, there was even more work and more interference than usual. All the prisoners here for religious convictions, whatever their denomination, were surrounded by more spying, by more threats from the secret police.
Yet Easter was there: great, holy, spiritual, unforgettable. It was blessed by the presence of the risen God among us – blessed by the silent Siberian stars and by our sorrows. How our hearts beat joyfully in communion with the great Resurrection! Death is conquered, fear is no more, an eternal Easter is given to us! Full of this marvelous Easter, we send you from our prison camp the victorious and joyful tidings: Christ is Risen!
Hard not to feel a bit jealous of that joy – while not envying the circumstances in which it was expressed. But maybe those two things are not entirely unconnected.
Anyway: to conclude, I’ll borrow Kathryn Rose’s daily question format on Twitter:
Good morning! What will you be joyful about today?