Over my nearly 62 years on this earth, I’ve been able to read through the Bible several times, and the New Testament a couple of times more. Alleluia! What a gift! One of the things which has always struck me is the overwhelming, superabundant joy that flows through those who knew and walked with Christ—the Apostles and Evangelists, Peter, Paul, James, John, etc. I have been especially impressed with the joy and longing at the end of the entire revelation, in the Apocalypse (despite all the frightful dimensions of the book), as well as the superabounding joy that seems to break forth at the very beginning of the epistles of Paul, Peter, James, and John.
It occurred to me that this joy at the end, as well as at the beginnings, is apropos of this time of year—the end of the old liturgical year (anticipating the end of the world) and the beginning of the new liturgical year with Advent (anticipating the coming of the Lord in the past [Bethlehem], the present [the Eucharist], and the future [the Parousia]).
As we close out the old year, we think of the end of all things—which on one level is ominous. Nonetheless, at the end of the Bible antipating the end of the world, sure enough, we find expressions of tremendous joy, despite severe threats, crosses, and oppressions. Witness the final lines of the final book (Apocalypse, 22):
12 Behold, I come quickly; and my reward is with me, to render to every man according to his works.
13 I am Alpha and Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.
14 Blessed are they that wash their robes in the blood of the Lamb: that they may have a right to the tree of life, and may enter in by the gates into the city.
15 Without are dogs, and sorcerers, and unchaste, and murderers, and servers of idols, and every one that loveth and maketh a lie.
16 I Jesus have sent my angel, to testify to you these things in the churches. I am the root and stock of David, the bright and morning star.
17 And the spirit and the bride say: Come. And he that heareth, let him say: Come. And he that thirsteth, let him come: and he that will, let him take the water of life, freely.
18 For I testify to every one that heareth the words of the prophecy of this book: If any man shall add to these things, God shall add unto him the plagues written in this book.
19 And if any man shall take away from the words of the book of this prophecy, God shall take away his part out of the book of life, and out of the holy city, and from these things that are written in this book.
20 He that giveth testimony of these things, saith, Surely I come quickly: Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.
21 The grace of our Lord Jesus Christ be with you all. Amen.
These passages are pregnant to overflowing with longing, with joy, with the hope that comes with the end of time when God will be all in all! The author is filled with the awareness of the transcendent reality of the divine victory, despite earthly troubles.
Now similarly, we catch such a joyful atmosphere at the beginning of most of the epistles of the New Testament. Let’s look at a couple of examples from Paul, then from others. Paul is wonderful for his transcendent enthusiasm in the midst of earthly tribulation and his joy breaks out in his salutations. For example, the beginning of 2 Corinthians is typical:
1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ by the will of God, and Timothy our brother: to the church of God that is at Corinth, with all the saints that are in all Achaia:
2 Grace unto you and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of mercies, and the God of all comfort.
4 Who comforteth us in all our tribulation; that we also may be able to comfort them who are in all distress, by the exhortation wherewith we also are exhorted by God.
5 For as the sufferings of Christ abound in us: so also by Christ doth our comfort abound.
6 Now whether we be in tribulation, it is for your exhortation and salvation: or whether we be comforted, it is for your consolation: or whether we be exhorted, it is for your exhortation and salvation, which worketh the enduring of the same sufferings which we also suffer.
7 That our hope for you may be steadfast: knowing that as you are partakers of the sufferings, so shall you be also of the consolation.
8 For we would not have you ignorant, brethren, of our tribulation, which came to us in Asia, that we were pressed out of measure above our strength, so that we were weary even of life.
9 But we had in ourselves the answer of death, that we should not trust in ourselves, but in God who raiseth the dead.
10 Who hath delivered and doth deliver us out of so great dangers: in whom we trust that he will yet also deliver us.
Or again, more briefly, from Colossians:
1 Paul, an apostle of Jesus Christ, by the will of God, and Timothy, a brother,
2 To the saints and faithful brethren in Christ Jesus, who are at Colossa.
3 Grace be to you and peace from God our Father, and from the Lord Jesus Christ. We give thanks to God, and the Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, praying always for you.
4 Hearing your faith in Christ Jesus, and the love which you have towards all the saints.
5 For the hope that is laid up for you in heaven, which you have heard in the word of the truth of the gospel,
6 Which is come unto you, as also it is in the whole world, and bringeth forth fruit and groweth, even as it doth in you, since the day you heard and knew the grace of God in truth.
This same kind of otherworldly joy, breaking into this world, is evident at the beginning of almost all the Pauline epistles. It’s like he can’t contain himself. Similarly, look at the opening of the epistle of James:
1 James the servant of God, and of our Lord Jesus Christ, to the twelve tribes which are scattered abroad, greeting.
2 My brethren, count it all joy, when you shall fall into divers temptations;
3 Knowing that the trying of your faith worketh patience.
4 And patience hath a perfect work; that you may be perfect and entire, failing in nothing.
5 But if any of you want wisdom, let him ask of God, who giveth to all men abundantly, and upbraideth not; and it shall be given him.
Our crosses are cause for Joy!!! Finally, look at the opening of Peter’s first epistle, though other examples (e.g., John’s first letter) would also be spot on (sorry about the length but the whole first 16 verses just seem to be one exultant unity--I couldn't bring it on myself to cut in anywhere!):
1 Peter, an apostle of Jesus Christ, to the strangers dispersed through Pontus, Galatia, Cappadocia, Asia, and Bithynia, elect,
2 According to the foreknowledge of God the Father, unto the sanctification of the Spirit, unto obedience and sprinkling of the blood of Jesus Christ: Grace unto you and peace be multiplied.
3 Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who according to his great mercy hath regenerated us unto a lively hope, by the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead,
4 Unto an inheritance incorruptible, and undefiled, and that can not fade, reserved in heaven for you,
5 Who, by the power of God, are kept by faith unto salvation, ready to be revealed in the last time.
6 Wherein you shall greatly rejoice, if now you must be for a little time made sorrowful in divers temptations:
7 That the trial of your faith (much more precious than gold which is tried by the fire) may be found unto praise and glory and honour at the appearing of Jesus Christ:
8 Whom having not seen, you love: in whom also now, though you see him not, you believe: and believing shall rejoice with joy unspeakable and glorified;
9 Receiving the end of your faith, even the salvation of your souls.
10 Of which salvation the prophets have inquired and diligently searched, who prophesied of the grace to come in you.
11 Searching what or what manner of time the Spirit of Christ in them did signify: when it foretold those sufferings that are in Christ, and the glories that should follow:
12 To whom it was revealed, that not to themselves, but to you they ministered those things which are now declared to you by them that have preached the gospel to you, the Holy Ghost being sent down from heaven, on whom the angels desire to look.
13 Wherefore having the loins of your mind girt up, being sober, trust perfectly in the grace which is offered you in the revelation of Jesus Christ,
14 As children of obedience, not fashioned according to the former desires of your ignorance:
15 But according to him that hath called you, who is holy, be you also in all manner of conversation holy:
16 Because it is written: You shall be holy, for I am holy.
Again, overflowing, nearly inexpressible joy!!! Now where does all this joy come from in the midst of oppression, affliction, and sorrow? Christians at the time were being persecuted by both the Romans and the Jews. Paul himself says of his various tribulations:
24 Of the Jews five times did I receive forty stripes, save one.
25 Thrice was I beaten with rods, once I was stoned, thrice I suffered shipwreck, a night and a day I was in the depth of the sea.
26 In journeying often, in perils of waters, in perils of robbers, in perils from my own nation, in perils from the Gentiles, in perils in the city, in perils in the wilderness, in perils in the sea, in perils from false brethren.
27 In labour and painfulness, in much watchings, in hunger and thirst, in fastings often, in cold and nakedness.
28 Besides those things which are without: my daily instance, the solicitude for all the churches.
Yet Paul is full of joy! And it’s not just a Disneyland kind of joy, but rather in the midst of all the horrors that go on in our earthly life, to the point where we feel we can’t take it anymore, “pressed out of measure above our strength, so that we were weary even of life,” as Paul himself says above.
Now my question in all this is why am I not also filled with this joy as were Peter, Paul, James, and John? And the answer would seem to be: I don’t really keep my eyes and my heart on Christ! Intellectually, I could write treatises on the centrality of Christ in our lives, Christ as source of our happiness, cause of our joy, etc., etc. But as in so many cases, intellectual understanding is not the same as heart-felt living.
I recognize that I often look down instead of up. For example, in reciting “Lord, I am not worthy that thou shouldst come under my roof, but only say the word and I shall be healed,” I often find myself focusing almost exclusively on the first phrase while skipping lightly over the second! Then I feel slightly depressed over myself rather that filled with joy and gratitude at the victory of Christ and at my salvation. It’s like I’m still in the immature mode of thinking I first have to make myself worthy of Christ before I can approach him! Then, instead of living in his presence with all the joy that brings, in my heart I keep my distance, even though I still say all my prayers, do all my duties, etc. This is not the attitude of John in the Apocalypse, of the Apostles in their letters, nor of that great sinner Mary Magdalen. Their longing for Christ, their trust in his love, predominates.
Similarly, when it comes to my daily cares and worries, small and great, I often focus on them rather than on God and Christ. Though I certainly pray about them and offer them up in petition, sometimes I get the feeling that I am dragging God down to the level of a human benefactor, open to possible manipulation. Here again, it’s as if I were childishly thinking that the more pitiful I present myself, the more likely I can touch the heart of the one I beseech—as if Christ’s heart is not already pierced with love for me far beyond my juvenile imagination. So once again, I am not living in his real presence, though I may often refer my thoughts and pleas to him. I’m relating to a superficial caricature in the name of Christ. So, no wonder that I am not living in his joy.
Pretty pitiful for a "mature" fellow of nearly 62 years, yet I think altogether too common—with various nuances for each individual—among us Christians.
The key to the Apostles’ joy seems to be the constant living awareness of the loving presence of Christ. They lived with him for three years on this earth, witnessed his sacrifice, experienced his resurrection, touched his hands and his side, saw him rise to glory above the clouds—to build a home for each of us in his loving kingdom. Granted that Paul did not have all this first hand experience (as he himself admits), but was merely knocked off his horse, he has the same vision of the overwhelming reality of the unseen world and therefore of the reasons for our joy despite anything we face in this life. And the Apostles never forgot any of it. Nor do the saints.
May we always live in his Presence. Let us begin again with this Advent. And fear not ("Be not afraid"), even of the end of the world--and of the coming of Christ the King.