Rejoice, I Say Rejoice!

“The word happiness does not occur in the Gospels,” writes Dorothy L. Sayers in The Whimsical Christian. “The word joy, on the other hand, occurs frequently – and so do the name and the image of hell. The command is to rejoice, not to display a placid contentment or a stoic fortitude.”

If we are commanded to rejoice, as we are commanded to love, then neither joy nor love is reducible to a feeling, since feelings are not at our beck and call. They are acts of the will. But since our wills are frail and prone to sin, we do not always love whom we should or rejoice when we should. We do not love our enemies. 

My own bad habit, begun as a boy, has been to meditate revenge upon my enemies. That transmuted into something worse: to meditate conspicuous forgiveness of the same. It is analogous to the bad habit of seeing in the Cross nothing but a heavy beam that bends the back and makes the legs stagger. How can we rejoice then?

Only by grace, the free gift of God. And this leads us into some fruitful linguistic difficulties. “Happiness is a gift of the heathen gods,” says Sayers, “whereas joy is a Christian duty.” Our English happy, like German gluecklich, and Latin fortunatus or felix, suggests that we have been blessed with good happenstance or fortune; although now in both English and German the sense of luck has been almost entirely folded into feelings. 

Jesus uses stronger language when he describes what it means to be truly blessed. Baruch attah, Adonai Elohenu, said the Jews in prayer: “Blessed art thou, O Lord our God.” Not simply happy, but blessed, holy. The evangelists translate that word baruch as Greek makarios: “blessed,” a word used properly only of the gods, and by extension of men most fortunate, most blessed.

Now it is one thing to be blessed by the pagan gods, with a fine house, upstanding sons and daughters, a faithful wife, and the esteem of one’s fellows. Those are gifts or matters of bon chance or buona fortuna that allow one to live a life like the carefree gods dining on nectar and ambrosia on Mount Olympus. But those can also be taken away with dreadful suddenness. 

Greek literature is full of “happy” men whose homes are set on a precipice: Achilles, Oedipus, Jason. Again Sayers is instructive: “Call no man happy until he is dead, said the Greek philosopher; and happiness, whether applied to a man’s fortunes or his disposition, is the assessment of something extended in time along his whole career.” 

It is quite a different thing to be blessed by God, and although it took the Hebrews a long enough time to understand this, even the dour author of Ecclesiastes would not descend to the despair that underlies the Greek maxim. To be blessed by God is not simply to be given a life as happy as his, or that in some shadowy way reflects his happiness, but to be brought into that very life itself, in love. As the psalmist puts it, to “dwell in the house of the Lord.”

Dorothy L. Sayers

The gift of God is God: “As the deer longs for the running streams, so my soul longs for you, my God.” It is impossible to imagine a man uttering those words in longing for the worldly blessings bestowed by the pagan gods, or in longing for the pagan gods themselves. No Greek poet ever longed for Zeus. 

But when Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven,” he means that they will be, in some measure already are, those who have found the running streams, souls who have entered the house of God. It is a relationship of love, and love, as Saint Paul says, never fails.

Hence we see a harmony not at first apparent, between the quality of the joy we feel, and the rejoicing commanded of us. True, feelings of joy are far more rare and unpredictable than feelings of love. Contentment is one thing, and a sour stomach is enough to upset it. Contentment can be pursued in a more or less methodical way: if I work hard, I will earn enough money to buy that house, and that will please me. 

But joy is like the Spirit Himself. “Joy,” says Sayers, excepting the most blessed of saints upon earth, “is of its nature brief and almost instantaneous.” It cannot be the result of a plan. It is not so much what man pursues as what pursues man, and what we in our sins run away from, because our nerves are weak, our hearts do not function properly, and our heads are addled. 

Joy, when it comes, seizes us. Sayers notes that its very instantaneity reveals to us whence joy comes and whither it would take us: “It is an apprehension of the eternal moment. And as such, it is the great invading adversary that can break open the gates of hell.”

Hence Saint Paul can say, “I am persuaded that neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor principalities, nor powers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor height, nor depth, nor any other creature, shall be able to separate us from the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus our Lord.” 

Nothing indeed can divide the indivisible, as no future can mar the holiness and blessedness of the eternal God. The fleet feeling the moment of joy brings is a very good thing; but the eternal moment abides forever. 

So, too, the crosses we bear come to us as invitations into the life of Christ, and we can, in grace, whatever our feelings may be, justly obey the command to rejoice and be glad – to exult in the glory of the love that is not ours to create or to destroy.

Anthony Esolen is a lecturer, translator, and writer. Among his books are Out of the Ashes: Rebuilding American Culture, and Nostalgia: Going Home in a Homeless World, and most recently The Hundredfold: Songs for the Lord. He is a professor and writer in residence at Magdalen College of the Liberal Arts, in Warner, New Hampshire. Be sure to visit his new website, Word and Song.