When we’re in a penitential time like Lent, the focus is usually on sorrow for our sins and the ascetical efforts necessary to overcome our bad habits, turning away from evil and embracing the good. Yet the Byzantine tradition, notorious for its heavy emphasis on repentance and self-accusation of all sins ever committed, often speaks of Lent as a time of joy. So I thought I’d try to inject a bit of joy into these somber days with some encouragement from the “farewell discourses” in the Gospel of John. For if we are without joy, we will also be without a genuine spirit of repentance and an eagerness to be restored to life in Christ, the source of our joy.
First, our joy is to be associated with love of Christ and of the Father’s will. “If you loved me, you would have rejoiced, because I go to the Father” (Jn. 14:28). Joy doesn’t come merely from having things our own way—the disciples would rather that Jesus didn’t leave them—but from recognizing the perfection of the Father’s will. Why did Jesus obey the Father’s will? “So that the world may know that I love the Father” (14:31). So He says, if you loved Me, you would rejoice that I do what the Father says. For the Christian, love and obedience are sources of true joy.
The next thing to note is probably the most important, for it defines what we mean when we speak of joy. The joy that God wants us to have is not mere “fun” (which often entails sin, at least if we follow the “world’s” juvenile concept of fun), nor is it even the superficial happiness we might experience simply through the absence of hardship or the presence of comfort, health, or general well-being. Partway through his discourse, Jesus said this: “These things I have spoken to you, that my joy may be in you, and that your joy may be full” (15:11). We come immediately to the essence of true joy: Christ’s joy in us. That is the only way our joy can be full. I don’t pray anymore merely for joy. I pray that his joy may be in me. That way I know it’s the real thing; that way I know I’m not seeking some sort of selfish happiness outside of Him.
As soon as Jesus said that our joy would be full because of his joy in us, He went on to speak of the world’s hatred and the persecutions that would be a result of it, and of the sorrow his disciples would experience at his death. At that time, they would be sorrowful while the world would rejoice with its savage and godless revelry. A great contrast is made here, as oftentimes in this Gospel, between God and the “world” (insofar as it rejects the truth and refuses to believe in Christ). The world hates the ones who love God; those who are of God are not of the world.
Despite all this, the Lord says that they will see Him again, “and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you” (16:22). This is another element of the true joy that comes from God. It is not ephemeral, fluctuating, easily lost. It is a joy that is permanent, enduring, not susceptible to the world’s efforts to destroy it. That is because it is not based upon material wealth, sensual pleasures, or high emotions. All those are transitory by nature, but the joy of the Lord is meant to be a permanent state of soul, an abiding presence, a dynamic inner energy that propels us toward the fullness of life in Christ.
Finally, as Jesus prayed his “high-priestly prayer” to the Father, He asked “that they may have my joy fulfilled in themselves” (17:13). This text is sandwiched in between others about keeping them in his name, guarding them from perdition, and protecting them from the evil one. So, like lambs in the midst of wolves, the disciples are to go forth with Jesus’ joy fulfilled in them, as that which enables them to do his will in a hostile world and to persevere in the truth.
We will find it very difficult to do what our Christian vocations require of us if we don’t have the Lord’s joy fulfilled in us. As I pray for the Lord’s joy to be in me, I notice that He reminds me of that—I’m supposed to be rejoicing, not just going through the motions. That occurred to me during the Divine Liturgy a while back, as I was going back to bless the “throne on high” (the special chair in the apse reserved for the bishop, where Christ invisibly presides), saying: “Blessed are You on the throne of your glory, enthroned upon the Cherubim, always now and forever, amen!” I thought to myself: How can you say that with a long face? Say it with joy!
There’s so much about Christian worship and prayer and life in general that should be cause for rejoicing, cause for us to recognize Jesus' joy in us. If we love Him, we will rejoice, and his joy in us will sustain us in the midst of the opposition of the “world” and all that is against the truth and love—and hence the joy—of the Lord. So pray that the joy of the Lord will be in you, that your joy may be full. And let’s not see that long face during your Lenten penances, for the world must come to know that you love the Father!