The situation is dire. Jesus’ life is coming to an end. In the verses immediately following this Gospel lesson, we learn of Judas’ betrayal, then Peter’s betrayal, then Jesus’ interrogations by Caiaphas, the high priest, and by Pilate, the Roman Prefect. And then comes Jesus’ crucifixion which Jesus fully anticipates and will readily submit. Which is his prayer. Jesus here is praying for protection – not his protection but our protection – and Jesus prays, “I speak these things… so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves.” Joy in the context of suffering.
Joy goes without saying when all is well: the exhilaration of life and company of laughter, the wonder of life that is so palpable, the burdens of life lifted and whisked away like clouds. Joy – this melding of delight and gratitude, freedom and hope – goes without saying when the burdens of life are lifted, when the flow of life turns into a beautiful harmony or a consoling fragrance, when – to use the language of the psalmist – “when we have wings like a dove.”[i] Joy goes without saying when all is well and we experience the sheer freedom and bliss of being alive. But the weather, and the weather of the heart, changes. And that is where joy is such a paradox.
Jesus is speaking about joy in the context of suffering, that his joy may be ours, in our suffering. Saint Paul writes continually about joy: joy in the context of suffering, or in the aftermath of suffering, or in the anticipation of suffering. It is the same in the Letter to the Hebrews and in the First Letter of Peter: how the crucible of suffering becomes the wellspring of joy.[ii]
Joy is not a psychological calisthenic. Joy is not caffeine-laced optimism or a smiling determinism. Joy is a gift. Saint Paul calls joy a spiritual gift from God. And it’s a paradoxical gift because suffering and joy are often bedmates. The psalmist says, “Weeping may spend the night, but joy comes in the morning.”[iii] It is very possible to experience deep suffering and equally-deep joy, as if the experience of suffering creates the chasm for joy. This is the context where we hear Jesus pray that his joy be ours: ours, in the context of our suffering.
Which is not to say we should go looking for suffering. No need. Suffering visits us, as does joy. Joy is a gift. There’s no need to wait for all to be well to experience the gift of joy. Joy is an elixir which God readily dispenses. If your heart is already broken open by suffering, it is also broken open to know joy.
[i] Psalm 55:6.
[ii] Hebrews 10:34; 1 Peter 4:13.
[iii] Psalm 30:6.
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