Sunday 21 October 2012

Joy or Hope for the Easter People during the Year of Faith?

The quote from St Augustine, “We are the Easter people and Alleluia is our song” inspires us to be a people with a mission to spread the joy of The Faith. There is nothing wrong with this in principle; we ought not to be people who give way to sadness and despair even in the midst of great tragedy. But I wonder if there is not a problem in the way the phrase is sometimes handled.  It seems to me that a focus on joy (as commonly understood) rather than hope, produces problems, particularly since the word ‘Alleluia’ does not mean ‘joyful’ but ‘Praise God’; which is to say, at all times and in all circumstances trust and thank God.

The first problem is that it by-passes the fact that we preach an incarnate Christ who for our salvation “accepted death, even death on a cross” (Phil.2v8); it does not fully take account of the fact that “we preach a Crucified Christ; a scandal to the Jews and a folly to the gentiles” (1.Cor.1v23). In the second place, it all but by-passes the need to participate in the Cross by uniting our sufferings to those of Christ Crucified; to “fill up in my flesh what is still lacking in regard to Christ's afflictions, for the sake of his body, which is the church.” (Col.1v24). And, one might add, for the sake of the world.

Taking ‘Alleluia’ at its scripture meaning of ‘Praise God’, then whether we are experiencing the joys of life (an anticipation of the joy of heaven?) or the sorrows of life (sharing in the Cross which leads us to heaven) we should be able to say fiat voluntas tua: “Thy will be done” and thereby sing ‘Alleluia’ (give praise to God). Sadly, the Easter ‘Alleluia’, is, I think, sometimes mishandled. Inside the liturgy it produces a lex orandi by which we are treated to nice, jolly celebrations of the giftedness of the community; outside the liturgy, it seems to require an emotional rejoicing with a joyful exterior like some sort of Glee Club, which is not what the biblical word commands. Such a joyful disposition is certainly out of place at the bedside of a dying loved one, especially when the loved one is a child. In such circumstances the presentation of a Saviour who stands some miles down the road saying “cheer up! All will be well when you get here!” can be an irritation rather than a consolation. I remember during my time in secular employment (in the late 70’s and early 80’s) and among non-Christian family friends of that time, that Christians with a joyful disposition were dismissed as “not living in the real world but having their head in the clouds with angels playing harps” –presumably because they had devoured the opiate of the people, as Freud termed religion.

I wonder then if what is needed is not so much a disposition of joy but of hope. The world in which we live is indeed filled with the Light of Easter, but light casts shadows, and the shadow from which the Light of Easter cannot be separated in this world is the shadow of the Cross; a Cross which is our hope, but not necessarily our joy: Our Lady did not stand at the foot of the Cross with St John rejoicing and singing joy-filled psalms (which is how some want the Cross to be commemorated at Mass, making the Sacrifice secondary to the fact that it is being pleaded by the Risen Christ Who, never the less, stands in heaven as the Lamb slain cf. Rev.5v6).

When people are suffering through illness, harmful relationships, armed conflict, poverty, natural disaster et al, they ask “Where is God in all of this?” To say “He is waiting for you down the road” does not really speak of God’s incarnate love for us. It rather presents Him as distant; uninvolved, and I would not be surprised if presenting Him this way I was rebuked for dismissing the person’s suffering. To say “He is on the Cross with you and holds out hope to you” is, in my experience, less likely to irritate those who suffer. Explaining that situations in this world (as well as bodies at the end of the world) can experience resurrection, provides hope -and a joy which might include but which goes beyond the mere emotion of joy. I therefore expect I will be focusing in this Year of Faith in providing a catechesis that brings hope. “We boast in our sufferings, knowing that suffering brings patience; patience brings endurance, and endurance brings hope. And this hope does not disappoint us, because God's love has been poured out into our hearts by the Holy Spirit, who has been given to us.” (Rom.5v3-5).

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