Easter Joy Belongs to the Melancholy
Easter joy has been harder to come by this year. Between the growing ugliness of American politics and the acrimony within the church body, I’ve found it harder to anticipate looking up from the broken body of my Lord to rejoice this Sunday in the resurrected and ascended Christ.
When I shared my struggle with a good friend, he suggested I revisit a collection of sermons that the 19th-century priest John Henry Newman preached in Oxford in response to the challenges of his own day. After turning to Newman, I found a surprising insight: In his view, my tempered joy is not merely acceptable or tolerable but rather called for as a deeply Christian response to Easter.
In a sermon titled “Keeping Fast and Festival,” Newman begins with a comparison of Christmas and Easter. At Christmas, he says, we rejoice with the “natural, unmixed joy of children.” Easter joy, however, is not the same. This joy is experienced as “a last feeling and not a first.” It grows out of tribulation, as Paul writes in Romans 5, emerges from the harvest (Isa. 9:3), and comes after (and out of) Lent and Good Friday.
In other words, if living through Lent teaches us even a little about how Christ bears the world’s suffering, then our Easter enthusiasm should look different from our response to God’s arrival as a baby at Christmas. It should feel more seasoned, more aged, and more worn. Easter joy isn’t the joy of children, says Newman, but rather of convalescents who have received the promise of healing, who are starting to get well but still regaining our strength after a Lenten season of confronting our weakness and sorrowing over our sin.
Newman’s image of Christians as convalescents brings to mind the story of healing at the end of The Magician’s Nephew by C. S. Lewis. At the culmination of the book, Diggory, the young hero, watches Aslan plant a magic apple in the newly created Narnian soil. A tree immediately grows from it. In Narnia, the apples have immense power of healing and strengthening. Aslan then gives Diggory a fruit from the tree and sends him back to our world to help heal his sick mother.
When Diggory gives his mother the magic apple, he doesn’t see immediate recovery. In our world, filled with the vigor of redemption, not creation, her healing is slow and gradual. Diggory first notices that her face looks a little different. Then a week later, she’s able to sit up. Finally a month later, she’s well enough to sit in the garden with her son. In the midst of this process, Diggory struggles to believe that her healing is really happening. But “when he remembered the face of Aslan, he [does] hope.”
We, too, should often (although not always) expect our healing to look more like Diggory’s mother’s—one marked by a tempered joy that doesn’t preclude struggle. As George Herbert writes, even as we grow in faith and rest in God, we still often feel “thin and lean without a fence or friend … blown through with ev’ry storm and wind.”
Like many exposed to various stripes of evangelicalism, it’s easy for me to place a high premium on subjective experience, emotiveness, and outward expression. As such, it’s easy for me to fear that my perceived lack of joy at Easter—or any other time of year, for that matter—is due to weakness and sinfulness. While that may be true at times, Newman challenges the belief that it is always true, rejecting the lie that “since it is the Christian’s duty to rejoice evermore, they would rejoice better if they never sorrowed and never travailed with righteousness.”
However, worrying about my own lack of “appropriate” emotion is not the solution and, in fact, may be part of the problem. When I refuse to let go of disappointment with my own brokenness and that of the world, I fail to recognize not only “the languor and oppression of our old selves” that persists this side of heaven but also the reality of the new life given to me. The solution is not to emote more or blot out the sorrows of this world but rather to turn in prayer, not inward, but upward.
“We must beg Him who is the Prince of Life, the Life itself,” says Newman, “to carry us forth into His new world, for we cannot walk thither, and seat us down whence, like Moses, we may see the land, and meditate upon its beauty!”
Easter joy does not require us, then, to leave this present hour behind or to be unbruised by the events of this world. Instead, it comes when, like Diggory, we return to the brokenness around us (including our own brokenness) with the comfort of Christ’s presence and the instruments of grace that he provides for us throughout the paschal season.
In this act of return, joy comes wearing a different, darker guise, but it also appears deeper, better, and more miraculous than anything we could ever expect.
Elisabeth Rain Kincaid is an assistant professor of moral theology at the Aquinas Institute of Theology. Her research focuses on questions of moral formation, the development of virtue, and the intersection of law, business, and theology.
A different version of this piece originally appeared at Covenant, the weblog of The Living Church magazine.