Christ allows us to witness joy

  • February 1, 2011
How many times have you heard “My Favourite Things,” “Do-Re-Mi” and other songs from The Sound of Music? Probably too many. Wonderful tunes, but so familiar they’re hard to hear.

Their delightfulness was renewed for me by my niece Clare. She knows the songs and the actions that accompany them by heart. She loves to sing along — during “Sixteen Going on Seventeen,” she echoes in top voice, “older and WISER!” When the children sing the good-bye song, she waves and bows, with flourish great and smile wide.  

Clare was born with Down Syndrome, in a culture which finds this chromosomal condition so unacceptable that some 90 per cent of babies known to have it in North America are aborted. She has suffered from the prejudice. But she has not forgotten how to revel in the joys of music and dance.

Often, I’ve glimpsed such moments of pure joy. A colleague reading a passage from Luke’s Gospel and pausing, with glistening eyes, to savour Jesus and the way God’s fragrance permeates our lives. A mentally ill man, who’s lately discovered a short-story writing group; as he reads aloud his work to a tiny audience, he enjoys words and creativity, and his own ability to imagine and communicate. A woman with tears on her face as she speaks of her dead husband; when she realizes her friend is listening and understands, her face lights up in elation. My mother, walking down the icy street with me arm-in-arm, relishing the fun of being out together on a cold beautiful day.

Joy peeking through like a slit of sun in a dark forest. It can break through in the most surprising places. It may seem small compared to the vastness of suffering; but the opposite is true. Joy is infinite, powerful, intoxicating. Like Clare inviting me to dance the Ländler, it flirtatiously reaches out and tickles us and invites us to come and play. “But things are grim!” “I’m not worthy!” Why say no when joy comes?  

And joy comes large. The first birth I saw gave me a glimmer of this truth, “one joy dispels a thousand sorrows.” After hours of labour, a room thick with tension and pain, in an instant joy was born into that room. The pain and anxiety were not so much gone as changed, as if they too had become part of the joy. Sorrow, grief, suffering may seem the stronger, but put them up against real joy and see how they, too, can dance with it, as if they are being unveiled at last. Perhaps grief is connected with gladness, sorrow with joy, suffering with glory. Could it be?

This month we celebrate the feast day of a long-ago saint. His name, Polycarp, may not be the top baby name now, but in the second century his story was familiar everywhere. His holiness, and the delight we can take in remembering him, aren’t only about his willingness to die rather than deny Christ. It’s the way, in him, the sun shines through the darkness: joy amid a thousand sorrows. If you haven’t read his martyrdom, take time on Feb. 23, the day we celebrate his birthday into eternal life. The story isn’t objective; it’s written with blatant, unashamed love.

Polycarp’s story occurs at a dark time for Christianity, when Christians who wouldn’t deny their faith were put to death gruesomely and publicly. Polycarp, one of the earliest bishops, personally knew John the Apostle and taught the faith to great theologians such as St. Irenaeus. He’s a lived witness of the inter-personal communion our Church is built on. He helped change the story of Christian persecution to one of faith, joy and life, assisting Christianity in becoming strongly and widely rooted in the empire that was bent on destroying it.

Polycarp’s inner beauty transcends. He neither sought death nor ran from it. When the police came to arrest him, he invited them in for a meal and instructed them to wait while he prayed; bystanders marvelled at his composure and bearing. His captors tried to find a way to avoid harming him. In the arena, he spoke boldly, claiming Christ rather than disowning Him to evade death. His inner spirit was witnessed by the fire that couldn’t touch him, so that the soldiers had to kill him with a sword.

His fellow Christians waited until the moment they could collect and hide his bones, considering even those bones full of love and joy. It’s the beginning of veneration of relics, based on the sense that a person’s body is filled with his spirit.

As with the witnesses of joy I observed — and the many more I didn’t notice — he shows us where true power lies. Not in suffering. Not in death. Not even in violence and betrayal. The one true power is Christ, who plants in us joy and peace that can’t be denied.