This year I attended my first Ruthenian Catholic Easter liturgy (a topic worth writing about all by itself). But more than the new textures and sounds of the Byzantine liturgy, what most struck me with the spirit of the season were a few words the priest shared after the lengthy sacrifice was at an end. He told a joke:
All the children of the parish are sitting in front of the priest as he gives a homily. His words are a more easily comprehensible version of the Easter Homily of St. John Chrysostom. Perhaps its most famous section goes like this:
“O death, where is your sting? O Hades, where is your victory? Christ is risen and you are abolished. Christ is risen and the demons are cast down. Christ is risen and the angels rejoice. Christ is risen and life is freed. Christ is risen and the tomb is emptied of the dead: for Christ, being risen from the dead, has become the Leader and Reviver of those who had fallen asleep.”
At one point, the priest cries out “Christ is risen, you are free,” at which a young boy starts crying. Taken aback, the priest stops his homily and asks why the boy is sad; after all, Christ is risen. What could be a cause for lamentation?
Through tear-filled eyes and unending sobs the boy responds timidly: “I’m not free; I’m four.”
Maybe it was because we’d all just finished with a very long, and often very repetitive Resurrection Matins Liturgy; maybe it was because of the pure joy of the moment, but the entire congregation broke out laughing. Despite the joke’s corniness, its cuteness overwhelmed us all, even those who only moments earlier had been shuffling, ready to leave the church after hours alternately standing and sitting.
The point, the priest explained, is that we ought always to be joyful during the fifty-day Paschal Season. Easter is not a day, but a liturgical period of joyful celebration of divine love, a time for thanksgiving and praise, but most importantly of sharing and showing our love of the Lord by joying in and loving our neighbors, that is, by laughing with them, refusing to accept sorrow in the wake of the Resurrection.
In fact, his words reminded me of those often attributed to St. Théophane Vénard: “Be merry, be really merry. The life of a true Christian should be an eternal jubilee, a prelude to the festival of eternity.”
These words, of course, come from a martyr; and, in fact, those who face death for the faith are those who most forcefully show us that difficulties, pain, and sorrow are not incompatible with joy.
On that note, I think of our own times: beset by terrorist attacks and the persecution of Christians around the world. Even more mundanely, we face a difficult election season, dividing people more than uniting them, and certainly standing in the way of the everyday joy we are called to manifest. It can be difficult to get up in the morning, let alone to joy in every person one meets.
But we cannot forget our joy. Not only are we called to it, but it is required of us. How else can we react to a risen Christ? What else can we say to an empty tomb and glorified wounds? To quote St. John Chrysostom once more:
Come you all: enter into the joy of your Lord. You the first and you the last, receive alike your reward; you rich and you poor, dance together; you sober and you weaklings, celebrate the day; you who have kept the fast and you who have not, rejoice today. The table is richly loaded: enjoy its royal banquet. The calf is a fatted one: let no one go away hungry. All of you enjoy the banquet of faith; all of you receive the riches of his goodness. Let no one grieve over his poverty, for the universal kingdom has been revealed; let no one weep over his sins, for pardon has shone from the grave; let no one fear death, for the death of our Savior has set us free.