The American writer, HL Menchen, once said of a Christian group, that it lived in haunting fear that someone, somewhere may be happy. It is thought by some that matters like faith and religious obligations should not be tainted with fun, laughter and joy. We sometimes think the more humourless or sour-faced people are, the more sincere and conscientious they are in their relationship to the divine. It is interesting to note that Jesus is not portrayed in any of the four gospels as one who was scary and over strict in speech and conduct. In fact he described himself as one who “came eating and drinking” and whom people called “a glutton and a drunkard.” (Matt 11:19) He said even when fasting people should put oil on their heads and wash their faces so their fasting does not appear too obvious. When asked why his own disciples did not fast, he compared the group to a wedding party with him being the groom. (Matt 9:15) Many of his parables have themes of celebration and rejoicing. In a parable of a large banquet at which those invited made excuses for their absence, the invitation was extended afterwards to “the poor, the maimed, blind and lame” so that the house might be filled. (Luke 14:15-23) In the parable of the Prodigal Son, the son was welcomed back home with feasting, music and dancing for “there will be more joy in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous people who do not need repentance.” (Luke 15:7) John records the first miracle of Jesus, the turning of water into wine, at a wedding reception when the wine ran out.
But the joy and happiness Jesus often spoke about in his parables and sermons is not some kind of superficial gaiety or mere merry making. Joy is God’s gift. Jesus knew his disciples would suffer for their faith and witness. He said, “You will become sorrowful but your sorrow will turn to joy.” (John 16:20) and again, “So you also have sorrow now. But I will see you again. Your hearts will rejoice and no one will rob you of your joy. (John 16:22) The letter to the Hebrews encourages those enduring shame and hostility for their faith by reminding them of Jesus who “for the joy that lay before him endured a cross”. (Heb 12:2) In his letter to the Philippians, written while in prison, Paul spoke of rejoicing when he heard of the proclamation of the gospel by others. His own suffering he compared to a sacrifice offered in joy. The word “blessed” in the Beatitudes Jesus taught is often translated as “happy”. The gospel is “good news,” good news that by grace we are received by a God who always welcomes the lost when they are found and the wayward when they return. We can rejoice when called to suffer for our principles and convictions, for “if we share Christ’s suffering, we will also share his glory. (Romans 8:17) Paul’s wish for the Philippians can be our wish for ourselves and others. “May you always be joyful in your union with the Lord. I say it again, rejoice.” (Philippians 4:4) In the early 1990’s a priest was murdered by the Mafia because of his crusade against corruption. At the trial, the murderer said that when he confronted the priest, the priest looked at him, smiled and said, “I was expecting you.” That smile came from the invincible power of a deep, abiding joy.