Monday, July 6, 2015

On Joy

Fr. Alexander Schmemann, 1921-1983

I don't hear much said or read much written in Christian circles about joy. Joy implies a certain freedom that is impossible to experience when one is bound up in self-centeredness or consumed by the passions.  Joy is that lightness of being that results when one experiences love and thus is empowered to offer love in return, when one is forgiven and thus is enabled to forgive in return.  The more the self is removed as a factor, the more joy expands to fill the void.  The lack of joy, therefore, is a telling symptom that things are not well.  Of this I could be the poster child.  If the fruit of joy is not being produced in one's life, chances are that the Holy Spirit is finding it a challenge to bear any of the other fruit that are the primary characteristics of His fulness.


I came across the following passage on joy in Alexander Schmemann's For the Life of the World (Crestwood, NY: St. Vladimir's Seminary Press, 1973), 24ff.  Because I come across so little on joy, it caught my attention.

And yet, from its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy, of the only possible joy on earth.  It rendered impossible all joy we usually think of as possible.  But within this impossibility, at the very bottom of this darkness, it announced and conveyed a new all-embracing joy, and with this joy it transformed the End into a Beginning.  Without the proclamation of this joy Christianity is incomprehensible.  I ti only as joy that the Church was victorious in the world, and it lost the world when it lost that joy, and ceased to be a credible witness to it.  Of all accusations against Christians, the most terrible one was uttered by Nietzsche when he said the Christians had no joy.

Let us, therefore, forget for a while the technical discussions about the Church, its mission, its methods.  Not that these discussions are wrong or unnecessary - but they can be useful and meaningful only within a fundamental context, and that context is the "great joy" from which everything else in Christianity developed and acquired its meaning.  "For, behold, I bring you good tidings of great joy" - thus begins the Gospel, and its end is: "And they worshipped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy." (Luke 2:10, 24:52)  And we must recover the meaning of this great joy.  We must if possible partake of it, before we discuss anything else - programs and missions, projects and techniques.

Kenyan deacon leading the Great Litany of the Divine Liturgy

 Joy, however, is not something one can define or analyze.  One enters into joy. "Enter thou into the joy of thy Lord" (Matthew 25:21).  And we have no other means of entering into that joy, no way of understanding it, except through the one action which from the beginning has been for the Church both the source and fulfillment of joy, the very sacrament of joy, the Eucharist.

Orthodox Liturgy in the bush for Turkana Christians in NW Kenya

The Eucharist is a liturgy.  And he who says liturgy today is likely to get involved in a controversy.  For to some - the "liturgically-minded" - of all the activities of the Church, liturgy is the most important, if not the only one.  To others, liturgy is esthetic and spiritual deviation from the real task of the Church.  There exists today "liturgical" and "non-liturgical" churches and Christians.  But this controversy is unnecessary for it has its roots in one basic misunderstanding - the "liturgical" understanding of the liturgy.  This is the reduction of the liturgy to "cultic" categories, its definition as a sacred act of worship, different as such not only from the "profane" area of life, but even from all other activities of the Church itself.  But this is not the original meaning of the Greek word leitourgia. It meant an action by which a group of people become something corporately which they had not been as a mere collection of individuals - a whole greater than the sum of its parts.  It meant also a function or "ministry" of a man or a group on behalf of and in the interest of the whole community.  Thus the leitourgia of ancient Israel was the corporate work of a chosen few to prepare the world for the coming of the Messiah.  And in this very act of preparation they became what they were called to be, the Israel of God, the chosen instrument of His purpose.
His Beatitude the Patriarch of Alexandria leading Divine Liturgy in Nairobi

Thus the Church itself is a leitourgia, a ministry, a calling to act in this world after the fashion of Christ, to bear testimony to Him and His kingdom.  The eucharistic liturgy, therefore, must not be approached and understood in "liturgical" or "cultic" terms alone.  Just as Christianity can - and must - be considered the end of religion, so the Christian liturgy in general, and the Eucharist in particular, are indeed the end of cult, of the "sacred" religious act isolated from, and opposed to, the "profane" life of the community.  The first condition for the understanding of liturgy is to forget about any specific "liturgical piety."

Turkana people listening to the homily during Divine Liturgy

The Eucharist is a sacrament.  But he who says sacrament also gets involved in a controversy.  If we speak of sacrament, where is the Word?  Are we not leading ourselves into the dangers of "sacramentalism" and "magic," into a betrayal of the spiritual character of Christianity?  To these questions no answer can be given at this point.  For the whole purpose of this essay is to show that the context within which such questions are being asked is not the only possible one.  At this stage we shall say only this: the Eucharist is the entrance of the Church into the joy of its Lord.  And to enter into that joy, so as to be a witness to it in the world, is indeed the very calling of the Church, its essential leitourgia, the sacrament by which it "becomes what it is."

Well that was an unexpected destination, for me at least.  But so much about Orthodoxy has for me been unexpected, startling, compelling.  As with so much of my life, the lack of joy was not so much an absence of trying, but of looking everywhere but at what the Early Church had understood to be the center, where it has been all along.  As we say by way of greeting, 'Christ is in our midst!'  And as we participate - give ourselves, give myself - we enter into another realm, that Kingdom which we are meant to seek first.

Receiving the Eucharist after my Baptism and Chrismation, January 8, 2011