Today the Church reaches Mid-Lent, traditionally called “Laetare Sunday”, from the Introit of the Mass, Rejoice Jerusalem/Laetare Jerusalem. Having started the season of Lent largely reflecting on Biblical themes of temptation, penance, repentance, fasting, almsgiving and prayer, our attention will turn more to the Man of Sorrows than to generalized themes, so appropriate for spiritual renewal.
It is in this sense that the common title of this Sunday has a note of irony, because we bid Jerusalem to rejoice, noting the tension between Jerusalem as an image of the glorified Church, and the earthly Jersualem which is the end to which Our Lord “set his face” (Luke 9:51), ultimately leading to his Most Sorrowful Passion and Death. The ambiguity of the injunction to rejoice as men and women already “seated in the heavens with Christ” (Ephesians 2:6), yet all the while having to endure this “veil of tears” is supposed to be a powerful tonic to us here below, tempted to give way under the burdens of life.
To understand more of Christ and his joy, I like to look at a rather mysterious passage from the Gospel of Luke (10:21-24):
“In that same hour he rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and said, “I thank thee, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, that thou hast hidden these things from the wise and understanding and revealed them to babes; yea, Father, for such was thy gracious will.All things have been delivered to me by my Father; and no one knows who the Son is except the Father, or who the Father is except the Son and any one to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.”Then turning to the disciples he said privately, “Blessed are the eyes which see what you see!For I tell you that many prophets and kings desired to see what you see, and did not see it, and to hear what you hear, and did not hear it.”
Christ mysteriously “rejoiced in the Holy Spirit”. It is a very strong word in the original Greek, from the verb αγαλλιαω, which is a composite word from agan “much/very” and hallomai, or “to jump/leap”. So in a very real way, and this is hard to convey in English, Jesus possessed a type of joy that can only be described as ebullient. It is the type of joy that makes you want to jump.
To be reminded that Christ’s joy is as much a part of his human emotional makeup is a helpful corrective as we begin to experience Christ in travail, where he will say things like “my soul is sorrowful, to the point of death” (Matthew 26:38). Yet even then, we recall the words of the Book of Hebrews, that Christ endured the Cross “for the joy that was set before him.” (Hebrews 12:2)
I believe the key to understanding Our Lord’s capacity for experiencing such different emotional states with such a powerful authenticity is to probe into that burning love which motivates him. If he was joyful, it was for our sake. If he was overwhelmed with grief, it was also for our sake. He brought glory to His Father and Ours, that he should love us both in our joy and in our grief.
Yet there is something powerful about joy, and the Scriptures remind us that joy is supposed to be the normal state for the Christian. St. Paul, in his celebrated passage on joy in the Epistle to the Philippians, enjoins them to rejoice. Yet he links their capacity for joy to their growth in prayer, and also where they direct their mental attention, i.e., what is true, honest, just, pure, lovely, of good report, virtuous, praiseworthy, etc. (Philippians 4:8)
Our theologians teach us that the Human Soul of Christ was illuminated by the beatific vision, or the direct intuition/participation in God. This undoubtedly must have overflowed into emotions, as much as it enlightened his human intellect and will. In a sense, Christ was able to rejoice even in the midst of great pain, because his human mind and heart were totally fixed on the Glory of the Father and participated in that uncreated bliss which his Divine Nature possessed.
This is very high and complex theology, but we can take something away from it: if we find ourselves bereft of joy, and it’s not a question of neurochemicals or something medical, we may have to ask ourselves whether we are truly devoted to regular and authentic prayer. We have to ask ourselves whether we give our mental attention to unworthy objects, or things that distract us from heavenly realities. Several saints used to abstain from reading newspapers and other media, simply because it hindered their recollection and agitated their spirit. Sometimes I ask myself the same question: if I am supposed to rejoice in the Lord always, how can I do that, if I deliberately choose to rejoice in lesser things?
If the joy of Christ fortified him for the long Calvary of his life, how much more is it necessary for us to learn to be joyful…but not in ourselves or the things of this world, but in the Lord.