Marking Ourselves With Joy

It is a joy to be with you this morning. It is a joy to be with you, who were my church family during our years in St. Paul. It is an especial joy to be with you during this Easter season—the season of rejoicing in the resurrection, of celebrating the return of spring (it is spring here in New Jersey; but it sounds like spring is even on the way in Minnesota!) It is a joy to be with you, too, in a season of vaccination, after a long winter of COVID, with the rumors and hints of hope that things might change; that our lives might once again be filled with common joys like being together without fear.

But of course these joys are tempered. My joy is tempered by my pain, in the loss of a cross-country move that separates me from you. Our communal joy is tempered by our pains, thinking of the many losses of this year: losses of life, of opportunity, of income, of a sense of stability and certainty, of losses that we have seen and named and grieved; and of losses that we don’t yet know the contours of, and perhaps won’t know for many years. We are marked by pain.

In the Gospel reading this morning, Jesus appears to his disciples. The disciples, too, are marked by pain: “When it was evening on that day, the first day of the week, and the doors of the house where the disciples had met were locked for fear of the Jews, Jesus came and stood among them.” The disciples, not yet knowing the joy of the resurrection, have locked themselves inside. They are huddled together, indoors, barred against the world, barred against their own community, afraid of what might happen if they go out. “The Jews” whom the disciples fear sounds horribly anti-semitic to modern ears, and we are right to resist it. But throughout the book of John, “The Jews” is a shorthand for members of the disciples’ own community—they themselves are Jews, just as Jesus is a Jew—so they are afraid of and distant from their own people because of the awful events of Good Friday, the execution of Jesus, their teacher and friend and God. The picture we get here is one of a grief-filled, solemn, fearful, quarantine. Perhaps, in our own ways, we can relate.

When Jesus appears to them, he breaks the disciples’ isolation and their grief, offering these words of joy and comfort: “Peace be with you.”

But peace and joy come marked with pain: “After he said this, he showed them his hands and his side.” He shows them the marks where the nails had been. Jesus’ body after the resurrection still bears the marks of his wounding. His joy is tempered by his pain. The disciples rejoiced when they heard this good news of Jesus’ resurrection. And Jesus said again, “Peace be with you. As the father has sent me, so I send you.”

And what follows, to me, right now, is the best part of the whole story: “When he had said this, Jesus breathed on them and said to them, ‘Receive the Holy Spirit. If you forgive the sins of any, they are forgiven them; if you retain the sins of any, they are retained.’” Let me read that again, in case you missed it: “When he had said this, he breathed on them.” Jesus breathed on them. For the disciples, after two days of fear and indoor isolation and the certainty of Jesus’ death, Jesus showing up and breathing on them must have felt pretty great. For me, after a year of quarantine, and social distancing, and mask-wearing, and breath-avoiding-at-all-costs, Jesus getting close enough to breathe on his disciples sounds simply amazing, astonishing, outrageous, miraculous. He breathed on them. This image fills me with joy. As I imagine the scene, maybe he hugged them, one by one—how else could he be close enough to breathe on each one of them? He shared his body, his physical presence, his germs, whatever viruses he may or may not have been exposed to on his journey back from the grave, his smelly breath, his Holy Spirit. What I wouldn’t give to be together in person, as the disciples were with Jesus, receiving that precious gift of presence, breathing the same air, feeling the pulse of shared breath, the spirit of God that in Genesis 2 was breathed into human nostrils at creation to make us live.

But joy is tempered by pain. The doubt of Thomas is a reminder of that. For those of us, like Thomas, who were not in that room with Jesus, we too may doubt. We too, who did not feel that intimate breath, or see him with our own eyes, or hear his words of peace in our ears, may burn with the desire to see for ourselves. “Unless I see the mark of the nails in his hands,” said Thomas “and put my finger in the mark of the nails and my hand in his side, I will not believe.” Thomas wants to know not just with his mind and his heart, but with his body—he wants to touch the wounds, to come as searingly close as possible to Jesus’ pain, to feel in his fingertips both the joy of resurrection and the pain of crucifixion. He wants to put his hand in Jesus’ lacerated side. And when he does, when he feels Jesus’ scars, he exclaims the surprising truth in the joy of belief. He exclaims, “My Lord, and my God!”

Like the disciples after the resurrection, we live in a time of tragedy and hope. This is acutely so this spring. But it has always been this way—there is nothing new under the sun—we live in tragedy and death, and at the same time, we live in hope and in life. But how? How do we embrace joy in the midst of pain? For wisdom, let me turn our attention to a little corner of the Old Testament: The Book of Ecclesiastes.

Because there is no better teacher on tragedy and joy than the book of Ecclesiastes: “There is nothing new under the sun,” says the teacher. And this is his famous refrain: “All is vanity and a chasing after wind” (Eccl 1:14; see 2:11, 17, 26; 4:4, 16; 6:9). All our work, our trouble, our lives, what do they mean? It’s “vanity”—the Hebrew word, hebel, means “vapor,” or “breath.” Imagine raking leaves on a windy day—hebel, vanity. We might imagine the disciples in their lock-down of despair saying to one another this teacher’s brutally honest words about our tragic mortality: “All things are wearisome; a human cannot describe it”; “all is vanity. All go to one place; all are from the dust, and all turn to dust again.”

Ecclesiastes does not allow us to deny tragedy; it helps us acknowledge it and embrace it. But it does not leave pain untempered by joy. The teacher also writes:

“Go, eat your bread with enjoyment, and drink your wine with a merry heart; for God has long ago approved what you do. Let your garments always be white; do not let oil be lacking on your head. Enjoy life with the wife whom you love, all the days of your vain life that are given you under the sun, because that is your portion in life …” (Ecc 9:7–10)

Notice what being joyful looks like, according to Ecclesiastes: eat with enjoyment; drink with a merry heart. Put on fresh garments; put oil on your head. Be with your beloved. Joy is not just a feeling. Joy is also behavior. When we do these little, daily things: eating and drinking and clothing ourselves, we signify and embody joy in the midst of pain. Joy is practiced. These practices of joy are the opposite of how people ritualized grief in the ancient world—which was through fasting, wearing sackcloth, and putting ash on their heads. End your cycle of mourning, Ecclesiastes teaches. Take up rituals that inculcate gratitude and enjoyment: eat, drink, change your clothes, anoint yourself, rejoin your community and celebrate with those you love. We are hebel, vanity, because tragedy obscures the boundary between the dust that we once were and the dust that we will become. But practices of enjoyment mark the transition from grieving over death to reincorporating ourselves in life. Ecclesiastes encourages reflection: What are your practices of joy? How do you signal your embrace of life? What rituals have sustained you over the past year? Is it baking bread? Playing a game with your kids? A daily walk? Cooking and savoring a food you love? Signaling life in these small ways stakes out the space and time of the living over against the forces of death. In the midst of tragedy, and pain, let us mark ourselves with joy. Let us mark our lives with the resurrected Jesus, who bears the breath of the Holy Spirit in his wounded body. For me this week, I marked a moment of joy when eating toast with my six-year-old, who delightedly told me how much he loves “the bumpy peanut butter.” Let us eat and drink with that kind of enjoyment, as Ecclesiastes calls us to do. Let us get out of our jammies and as we dress, let us remember that we are clothing ourselves with life; let us love our loved ones. Let us think as small as possible—marking our joy in the space of a single breath; and as we breathe let us remember it is the breath of the Holy Spirit that Jesus gives. Let us exclaim with Thomas, “My Lord, and My God!” Let us mark ourselves with joy.

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