The theological underpinnings of joy.
| posted 1/18/2005
Winston Churchill was not only an inspirational leader against the terror of Nazi Germany, but he was also a humorist.
Adolf Hitler had announced at a Nazi rally during the Battle of Britain that Germany would wring England's neck like a helpless chicken.
Churchill spoke the next day in Parliament and said that Herr Hitler was in for a big surprise because he would find out that England is "some chicken with some neck."
We all know what happened, so we know what a good joke Churchill told, and we now realize that Churchill's words, his cigar, his hat, and his proper London suit were humorous jabs at terrible fears, humor that a nation under siege really needed.
As Churchill demonstrated, leaders need to rise above their circumstances, and the spiritual health required is what Christians call joy.
Search for the Source
What is the source of the joy that sets us free from fear, that creates solidarity, and that clears our vision?
That source is the one who not only created human beings but also enjoys what he made. God is the one with the original sense of humor. And joy has its profoundest source in Jesus Christ the Lord.
The surest way to understand the Christian meaning of "joy" is to see how it's used in the New Testament.
On the Thursday evening of Holy Week, Jesus speaks about joy with his disciples. True to its inner meaning, joy takes us by surprise.
Jesus tells of his impending separation from his disciples; he prepares them for the terror of his trial, his death, and the devastation that stands before him and his followers. Nevertheless, in this dangerous moment he tells them about joy:
"You will be sorrowful, but your sorrow will turn into joy. … So you have sorrow now, but I will see you again and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy from you. … I have said this to you, that in me you may have peace. In the world you have tribulation; but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world" (John 16:20-24, 33).
"Joy" is united by Jesus to the word "peace," which means wholeness and salvation. Sorrow will be turned to joy when we discover that Jesus Christ has won the victory over death itself. This transformation of sorrow into joy is at the core of comedy. What we thought would be a permanent loss, producing fear and grief, becomes (surprise!) a victory. The result of this remarkable reversal is laughter.
This is the comedy in Mark Twain's Huckleberry Finn as the runaway slave Jim and the boy Huck drift on their raft down the Mississippi River. They are approached by a boat of bounty hunters looking for runaway slaves.
"Hey, Boy, who is on that raft with you?"
Huck's unexpected and bold response: "Hey misters, will you help my pappy and me—my pappy is sick here with the smallpox. Please help us!"
The hunting party quickly pulls back and orders Huck to go on down the river for help.
This is the essence of comedy. It is the possibility of the deadly smallpox that, in fact, rescues the quick-witted Huck and his friend Jim. In much the same way, we always assumed that death was the end of faith, hope, and love, but our Lord tells his friends on the Thursday before Good Friday that everything will turn upside down, even such powerful forces as death and sin and evil.