Maybe it’s just me, but Easter joy has been harder to come by this year. It may be due to personal sadness in the last year, but it could just as easily go beyond my own struggles. Between the Holy Week terror attacks in Brussels, the growing ugliness of the U.S. presidential election, and the acrimony within our own church body, I have found it harder this year to look up from the broken body of my Lord to rejoice in the presence of the resurrected and ascended Christ. On Easter Sunday, I caught myself looking around at others in the congregation, wondering if there was something more that they were all feeling and that I am missing out on. When I shared my struggles with a good friend, he reminded me that the writings of John Henry Newman had been encouraging me and inspiring me of late. In the hope of explaining my subdued Easter spirit, I turned to Newman, and found all I could have wished for and more.
In Sermon 23 of Plain and Parochial Sermons, “Keeping Fast and Festival,” Newman begins with a comparison of Christmas and Easter. At Christmas, he writes, we do rejoice with the “natural, unmixed joy of children.” Easter joy, however, is not the same. Rather, Easter joy should be described as “a last feeling and not a first.” Easter joy is the joy that comes out of tribulation, as Paul writes in Romans 5:3-5, the joy that comes out of the harvest (cf. Isa.9:3), the joy that comes after (and out of) Lent and Good Friday.
Christians do not come to Easter, then, unbruised and unaffected by the events of the world around us. If Lent reminds us of Christ’s bearing of the suffering of the world, our joy should not exist unchanged from Christmas joy, or the joy that perhaps at times we believe we have earned, if we have truly journeyed along with Christ and shared his suffering and his resurrection. Newman gives us permission not to confuse this joy with the sentiment he would most likely dismiss as enthusiasm. Christian joy at Easter does not need to be unalloyed and unrestrained. It is not the joy of children, but rather of convalescents, who are in the process of getting well, who see the promise of health, but are still regaining strength rather than fully healed.
When the crisis is past, the illness over, but strength not yet come, they will go forth to the light of day and the freshness of the air, and silently sit down with great delight under the shadow of that Tree, whose fruit is sweet to their taste.
Newman’s image of Christian convalescents, slowly but joyfully recovering, even as the memory of past suffering remains, brought to my mind the story of healing at the end of The Magician’s Nephew by C.S. Lewis. There, Diggory, the young hero, returns from Narnia to our world with a magic apple, given him by Aslan to heal his mother. Earlier in the story, Diggory had been tempted by an evil witch, who, knowing his deep hope for his mother’s healing, said that he could take an apple from the Tree of Life directly back to his mother, rather than returning it to Aslan and completing the quest on which Aslan had sent him. Diggory resists the temptation and returns the apple to Aslan. Aslan plants the apple in the newly created Narnian soul, and a tree immediately grows from the fruit. He then sends Diggory back to our world and his mother with a fruit from this tree, rather than the fruit directly from the tree of life.
Although Diggory has learned to trust Aslan, when he gives his mother this apple, he does not see an immediate recovery. In our world, which is filled with the vigor of redemption, not creation, her healing is slow and gradual. Diggory first notices that her face looks a little different. Then, a week later, she is able to sit up and the doctors notice a change. Finally, a month later, she is able to sit in the garden with her son. Throughout this process, Diggory struggles to believe that the healing really is happening (after all, it looks so different from what he expected). However, “when he remembered the face of Aslan, he did hope.”
Perhaps we (often, although not always) should expect our healing and our rejoicing to look more like Diggory’s mother. Often, it is too easy for many of us, especially those raised in church cultures that place a high premium on subjective experience, to fear that the perceived lack in our joy is due to our own weakness and sinfulness. While this may at times be true, Newman challenges the belief that it is always true, rejecting the lie that “since it is the Christian’s duty to rejoice evermore, they would rejoice better if they never sorrowed and never travailed with righteousness.”
Sorrowing and struggle are necessary for this joy; they do not preclude it.
Worrying about my own perceived emotional lack — or feeling so overwhelmed by the brokenness of the world around me that I cannot raise my head to rejoice — may not be the solution, and in fact, may be part of the problem. Refusing to let go of my disappointment with my own brokenness and that of the world shows a failure to recognize not only the reality that in this world “the languor and oppression of our old selves” will continue, but also the reality of the new life given me. The solution is not to emote more or blot out the sorrows of this world, but rather to to turn in prayer, not inward, but upward.
We must beg Him who is the Prince of Life, the Life itself, to carry us forth into His new world, for we cannot walk thither, and seat us down whence, like Moses, we may see the land, and meditate upon its beauty!
Easter joy does not require us, then, to leave ourselves or the world of this present hour behind. Rather, Easter joy may only come when, like Diggory, we return to the brokenness of this world — and our own and others’ brokenness — with the comfort of Christ’s presence and the instruments of grace that he has provided for us throughout the annual miracle of the paschal season. In this return, perhaps, joy silently comes, wearing a different guise, but deeper and better than anything we can ever expect.
Newman’s prayer at the end of his sermon conveys this hope and this desire far better than I ever could.
May we partake in such calm and heavenly joy; and, while we pray for it, recollecting the while that we are still on earth, and our duties in this world, let us never forget that, while our love must be silent, our faith must be vigorous and lively. Let us never forget that in proportion as our love is “rooted and grounded” in the next world, our faith must branch forth like a fruitful tree into this.