Luke 13: 10-17 Healing
“…the entire crowd was rejoicing at all the wonderful things being done by him.”
I can imagine it, or I can imagine it in an African context. We can imagine the woman crying out with joy when she found she could stand up straight; maybe dancing a few steps. We can imagine the people shouting, ululating and dancing. That’s how they would do it in Africa and probably in Israel too. A great outpouring of joy would sweep up even staid, unemotional people like us. We often meet joy in the Gospel. We see it when Elizabeth meets Mary, newly pregnant with Jesus, and “the babe leaped in her womb.” We see it in Bethlehem with the angels singing songs of joy and sending the shepherds running to the stable to see the cause of all this joy. We see it in Bartimaeus with his sight restored, following after Jesus, praising God. We see it at the Resurrection when the disciples run from Emmaus to Jerusalem to tell the twelve they have seen the Lord, or Peter flings himself into the sea to swim to the risen Jesus. And we see it at the Ascension. Jesus has left the disciples to return to his Father, but the disciples do not grieve. On the contrary, “they returned to Jerusalem, with great joy and were continually in the temple praising God.” Joy is at the heart of the Christian faith. Joy that God has sent his Son into the world, joy that he heals people of their sickness, joy that our sins are forgiven. I remember once after confession, almost running down the road wanting to shout, “God is wonderful.” That doesn’t happen often! Joy is at the heart of our Christian faith, but do we show it? The knowledge of God, the knowledge of Christ, the belief in the Resurrection are causes of great joy. Why then are Christians thought to be so miserable? Why is monastic life thought to be grim and joyless? Do we ourselves give off the feeling of joy? That is a hard question to answer, but it needs to be asked.
I am not talking about that artificial joy which some Christians affect. You know what I mean, the big smiles, the canned laughter, the clichés. That is infuriating and off putting. I am talking about the real thing. You can find it in places of poverty and hardship. In fact we are more likely to find it there than among the rich and comfortable. We do find it in religious communities. That’s why we stay. Many of us will remember Br Giles, constantly complaining about how lay brothers were badly treated by priests. Yet when Giles smiled, the sun came out and you knew there was joy inside him.
Our brother Benedict once said that, “the gifts of the spirit can be counterfeited. The fruits of the Spirit cannot.” You can pretend to speak in tongues, prophesy and drive out spirits. You cannot pretend love, joy, peace, patience, kindness or goodness. You know straight away when they are false. Paul tells us “Let love be genuine. Hate what is evil. Hold fast to what is good. Rejoice in your hope…be constant in prayer.” And hope is one of the great sources of joy.
Am I joyful? Are we joyful in CR? There are certainly times of great joy. Easter day after a long and beautiful liturgy is usually joyful. A profession service gives us joy. Even a funeral of someone like our brother Aidan can be full of joy. But we do need to cultivate joy. I use the word cultivate with care. Cultivate means digging out the weeds, putting in the manure. We ourselves cannot make joy, any more than we can make roses, or figs. But we can do lots of things to ensure beautiful roses grow in our gardens. How can we make sure joy grows in our lives and shows other people that we believe in Christ? Well, I don’t want to produce one of those articles in the Readers’ Digest with titles like “10 ways of being joyful all day.” But there are some basic rules which we know in community life. Benedict tells us often not to grumble because that poisons the atmosphere of our life. Gossip, sneering, skinnering, as we say in South Africa, can be very amusing at other people’s expense but they leave a bad taste in the mouth.
The main Christian way of cultivating joy is to give thanks. Look at St Paul. He lived a hard life: he was shipwrecked, stoned, beaten with rods and whipped. He walked thousands of miles, was hungry, thirsty and troubled by the stupidities of his new Christians. Yet he is full of thanks. Every single epistle begins with Paul giving thanks. He saw God’s activity all around him. He was amazed that he, a persecutor of Christ, was now called an apostle. Paul never forgets that Christ died for him and rose for him. That is the source of his joy. And he looks forward constantly to the time he will join Christ again in the Kingdom of his Father. That is the real hope that feeds our joy. As he tells the Philippians: “To me, to live is Christ and to die is gain…My desire is to depart and be with Christ, for that is far better.” His longing to die and be with Christ does not cast gloom and despair over his life. On the contrary, the knowledge that Christ is there waiting for him beyond death fills him with hope and joy; Christ becomes a light shining onto his life calling other people to follow this way. We cannot make that happen to us, but we can pray that it will.
We need to think about it and anticipate it, as children do when they think of birthdays and Christmas. I can remember one of my nieces jumping up and down in exasperation a few days before Christmas: “Mummy, why isn’t it Christmas, yet?” Of course we don’t know what Christ will look like when we see him again; we don’t know what the Kingdom of Heaven will be like, but there are many images we can use to give us an idea of the hope and joy being stored up for us in Heaven. Images in art, images in music, images in great literature. These feed our imagination and make us realise it could be like this, only much more so. And of course it is the Bible itself that gives us the greatest images, and today’s reading from the epistle to the Hebrews is one that most sets my heart on fire. “But you have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the judge of all, and to the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and to Jesus.”