: a feeling of great happiness
: a source or cause of great happiness
: something or someone that gives joy to someone
: success in doing, finding, or getting something
Joy is the theme of the third week of Advent, the word unifying the scriptures and the spiritual journey towards Christmas: the great birth and the coming of God.
In the Hebrew Scriptures, joy is associated with God’s liberation and action. Delivering the Israelites from slavery in Egypt. Discovering a new, promised land. Becoming a free people. Returning from the exile. Adonai acts, shutting down pharaoh, confusing the powers of the nations, circumscribing the proud and haughty. Joy comes from God moving forward in creation, moving creation forward towards the Day of the Lord.
In the New Testament, joy is associated with the person and purpose of Jesus the Christ. Jesus takes on the suffering, brokenness and darkness of the world to redeem, liberate and transform it. Joy comes from the experience of Jesus as the firstborn of a new creation, the first of all things being made new. Jesus is the inaugurator and proclaimer of God’s Kingdom, the teleological reign of God in and over the world as was always intended.
Biblically-speaking, joy then is a multi-dimensional reality that touches multiple realms of existence: spiritual and religious, and also emotional, social, political and economic. It’s a unifying force that seems to be issued from a holistic unity found in God.
Dietrich Bonhoeffer, considered to be one of (if not the) greatest theological minds of the past century wrote a book on ethics in his short and fruitful 39 years of life. He received two doctorates summa cum laude before he was 25. Then taught in Europe and America as the nations moved towards what would become World War II. Influential thinkers pushed for his preservation from the horrors of war by sending him to America to teach. Yet he was convinced that he would have no right to participate in the rebuilding of Europe if he sat the war out in distant New York without paying any of the price of war. He returned to Germany and was eventually arrested and executed for participating in an assassination attempt against Adolf Hitler. Bonhoeffer believed, and articulated, that such an effort was the most obedient thing to do in terms of following the teachings of Jesus.
His Ethics is a book less well known, than his famous Life Together and The Cost of Discipleship. It’s a challenging read as he thoroughly constructs his ethics in a holistic way based upon the unity of God, Christ and the Sprit, and of us as the church with God. It seems much more circular than linear in terms of its interior logic.
While he doesn’t write specifically about joy, he does write about the way in which the joy (as defined in scripture as God’s action and (re)creation through Christ):
Ecce homo! – Behold the man! In Him the world was reconciled with God. It is not by its overthrowing but by its reconciliation that the world is subdued. It is not by ideals and programs or by conscience, duty, responsibility and virtue that reality can be confronted and overcome, but simply and solely by the perfect love of God. Here again is it not by a general idea of love that this is achieved, but by the really lived love of God in Jesus Christ. This love of God does not withdraw from reality into noble souls secluded from the world. It experiences and suffers the reality of the world in all its harness. The world exhausts its fury against the body of Christ. But, tormented, He forgives the world its sin. That is how the reconciliation is accomplished. Ecce homo!
Ecce homo (“behold the man”) are the Latin words used by Pontius Pilate in the Vulgate [Latin] translation of John 19:5, when he presents a scourged Jesus Christ, bound and crowned with thorns, to a hostile crowd shortly before his Crucifixion. It’s also the title of the quintessential work of the German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche who reflected upon what it means to be man, without the limits, or surpassing the constraining limitations of belief in God. In contrast to Nietzsche, Bonhoeffer is affirming the truth of Pilate’s introduction. In Jesus the divine and human converge and participate. He is the sign, symbol and moment in which God ultimately and radically engages in and with our reality. Its from this solidarity, even unto and through the fear, trembling and suffering of death, that the joy of redeemed creation – all things being made new – emerges.
Later in his ethics, as Bonhoeffer spells out how this joyful life is lived the talks about four divine mandates for human life: labor [which confronts us with the vocation of humanity to care for creation], marriage [which empowers us to participate in God’s ongoing work of creation], government [the ways through which God exercises his creative power over creation] and the church [which through its preaching and creation-organizing points and pulls towards the eternal salvation of the whole world].
These mandates are in a sense the four quadrants in which we are called to live out our obedience to the love of God in all of life: physical, social, political-economic and spiritual. As he finishes he explication of these mandates, he turns to the final one: the Church.
The divine mandate of the Church is different from these three. This mandates is the task of enabling the reality of Jesus Christ to become real in the preaching and organization of the Church and the Christian life. It is concerned, therefore, with the eternal salvation of the whole world. The mandate of the Church extends to all mankind [humankind is what he means as his use of man is a universal description of humanity, in no way minimizing or excluding women], and it does so within all the other mandates. Man is at the same time a laborer, a partner in marriage, and the subject of a government, so that there is an overlapping of the three mandates in man and all three must be fulfilled simultaneously; and the mandate of the Church impinges on all these mandates, for now it is the Christian who is a laborer, partner in marriage, and subject of a government. No division into separate spheres or spaces is permissible here. The whole man stands before the whole earthy and eternal reality, the reality which God has prepared for him in Jesus Christ. Man can live up to this reality only if he responds fully to the totality of the offer and the claim. The first three mandates are not designed to divide man up, to tear him asunder; they are concerned with the whole man before God, the Creator, Reconciler and Redeemer; reality, therefore in all its multiplicity is ultimately one; it is one in the incarnate God Jesus Christ, and precisely this is the testimony which the Church must give. The divine mandates in the world are not intended to cousume man in endless conflicts; on the contrary, they are directed toward the whole man, as he stands in reality before God. Man is not the place at which the incompatibility of these divine mandates is to make itself apparent; not the contrary, man, with his concrete life and action, is the first and only center at which there is achieved the unity of what is ‘in itself,’ that is to say, theoretically, incompatible. But this unity is achieved only when man allows himself to be confronted in Jesus Christ with the accomplished realty of the inaction of God and of the reconciliation of the world with God in the crib, the cross and the resurrection of Jesus Christ. In the form of a theory of ‘estates’ the doctrine of the divine mandates threatens to lead to a perilous disintegration of man and of reality; yet is it precisely this doctrine which serves to confront man with the one and entire reality which is manifested to us in Jesus Chrit. Thus here again all the lines converge in the reality of the body of Jesus Christ, in which God and man became one.
Ethics, p. 207-208
What Bonhoeffer says is that the ultimate joy of human existence comes from the telos or purpose of our being – to be unified by and in Christ: a unity which confronts and redeems our inner-divisions, our inter-personal divisions and our dehumanizing alienation from God. Joy is salvation, sanctification – spiritual life in all its dimensions. What a radical word for our contemporary world which works incessantly to delineate the parts of us (and our society) that are useful, productive, wasteful and unwanted!
His development of the joy from the vocation of these mandates is present in the prayer of Jesus recounted in John 16-17. Jesus implies that there is still work to do, things to learn, for which we are not yet prepared. Its oriented towards the future, the completion of the telos of creation. Our participation in that salvation, redemption and completion is the source, object and subject of our joy.
7 Nevertheless I tell you the truth: it is to your advantage that I go away, for if I do not go away, the Advocate will not come to you; but if I go, I will send him to you…
12 “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. 13 When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come…
16 “A little while, and you will no longer see me, and again a little while, and you will see me.” …
21 When a woman is in labor, she has pain, because her hour has come. But when her child is born, she no longer remembers the anguish because of the joy of having brought a human being into the world. 22 So you have pain now; but I will see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you…
13 But now I am coming to you, and I speak these things in the world so that they may have my joy made complete in themselves. 14 I have given them your word, and the world has hated them because they do not belong to the world, just as I do not belong to the world…
20 “I ask not only on behalf of these, but also on behalf of those who will believe in me through their word, 21 that they may all be one. As you, Father, are in me and I am in you, may they also be in us…
All of this theological development reframes joy as both something we know now (in happy and hard times) as well as what we will know in the future as God finishes, completes and comes again. The joy we have is not a possession, but a gift known in knowing God through Christ. This gift is one that is nurtured through our participation in God’s work and which will ultimately become our entire reality on the eighth day, the Sabbath of Sabbath, when the reign of God become the total reality of the cosmos.
THOUGHTS TO PONDER IN ADVENT:
How then do we approach joy in our life in between these moments of joy, deliverance and salvation? How do you maintain perspective, staying awake to the joy that was, is and is to come? How does that joy empower you to persevere, endure and thrive in happy and hard times? How does it give you a different point of view, a different emotional currency to use in life? When and if we know that we’re not yet complete (and so neither is everyone else!) then we can live in the freedom of entrusting all in the hands of the God who is recreating us in unity with himself.
How might that inform the ways in which we endure suffering, pain and loss? How might that shape the ways in which we interact with each other, and view ourselves? How might that impact the way that we use our resources, less out of a fear of scarcity, and more from a conviction of God’s abundance?
Joy then is not a momentary emotion but an existential direction.