On the roadway to Paradise

By 
  • June 4, 2010
An unforgettable look emanated from James’ eyes as he told of the sacrifices he’d made to raise his son alone; neither boasting nor with shame, simply a narrative. He’d given up much to keep his son John, including his own family, who couldn’t accept the child. John had just been accepted into medical school — for which purpose James had for years been working overtime, postponing his own education. A look of shining peace, joy fulfilled, pain not gone or forgotten but changed, beamed from his eyes and radiated from his whole being.

In times of sorrow and suffering, joy can seem a far-off dream, an illusion. I’ve mentioned the word “joy” to people and seen the look of incredulity, as though I’d mentioned flowing waters to a Saskatchewan farmer in the midst of the 1930s drought. Could such a thing be?  Could it be for me?

It’s a trick of sorrow:  sometimes it can make joy seem imaginary. But could joy be present within the suffering that makes us sad? Joy can seem to forget sadness; but isn’t sorrow somehow present in joy, too, changed but recognizable, like the grown-up woman whom we last saw as a small child?

Your joy is your sorrow unmasked…
And how else can it be?
The deeper that sorrow carves into your being,
The more joy you can contain….

(Kahlil Gibran)

James’ joy in John’s accomplishment was pure and filled the room. Yet the pain — physical, mental, spiritual — that preceded it, and helped bring it about, was somehow present too.

Christian tradition reminds us we dwell in a place where sin and suffering are ever-present; that we’ve been exiled from paradise, an angel with a shining sword guarding the gate so we cannot return. Christianity maintains joy is the eternal reality, sorrow and pain the passing ones. So often it seems the other way round; our preaching, teaching, writing, witnessing, can be the other way round, dwelling on pain and letting joy fade away.  “Rejoice!” was the angel’s greeting to Mary, at the sin-shattering moment of the incarnation. Her “yes” to God’s overshadowing her brought with it the shadow of suffering, a sword that pierced her heart even as (because?) her heart was big enough to bear God Himself. Was that sorrow a masked version of the joy the angel brought her?

We don’t dwell in paradise. But does it dwell within us? One of our earliest Christian theologians, Irenaeus of Lyons, has a unique depiction of Adam and Eve. He describes them, and therefore all humanity, as living “in the roadway to paradise.”  He portrays them as children in the garden, destined to grow, develop, change; created in God’s image, with the capacity to become ever more like God. That destiny doesn’t alter when they move from Paradise into the roadway. What changes is that now, their capacity for God is to be fulfilled within a world of suffering and sin. Now sorrow is part of joy; pain is part of learning to love.

It may not be what we would choose. Had Adam and Eve consulted us, we might have said, “No, stay in paradise, we don’t really want sorrow and suffering even if they do lead to joy and wholeness. Let’s have the joy without the sorrow.” But there’s a surprising delight in being in the roadway to paradise, in discovering here (rather than in a paradise with no shadow of suffering) our capacity for God. Joy and sorrow are inseparable, writes Gibran; “together they come, and when one sits alone with you at your board, remember that the other is asleep upon your bed.” Within their relationship is the mystery of how God is intertwined in our lives.

Irenaeus reviews Old Testament history, in which humanity is tripped up over and over by sin and sadness, seemingly lost. He retells the story through incarnation eyes, showing how Christ enters into that lostness, and by taking it up and making it his own, redeems it, “recapitulates” it (Irenaeus adopts this word from Ephesians 1:10). Christ brings the incarnation into the human story, thereby re-opening humanity to the divine. Thus a history of pain and sorrow and brokenness becomes moreso a history of joy and love and fulfilment. This is how Christ recapitulates human history; and each of our histories, if we will let Him.

James was telling his history with incarnation eyes: a story not of sadness only, but of sorrow taken up into joy. If we were to allow Christ into our sorrows, might they too be taken up into joy?

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