Holy Week has passed. The calendar has changed. The bright sadness of Lent has given way to the joyous hallelujah of Easter. But can we celebrate Easter at such a time as this?
Traditionally, the core practice of Lent is fasting in some capacity from food. In our cultural moment, other practices like abstinence or simplicity have risen as essential ingredients of the Lenten season. We may fast from food or abstain from social media. We may simplify our lives, put aside wearing our busyness as a badge of honour.
While no season is a good season for a pandemic, Lent was the time that the COVID-19 pandemic began to disrupt our lives in the West—and the austerity of Lent more naturally matched the new social world of a pandemic.
It would be a mistake to say that COVID-19 has simplified our lives. Instead, we have stepped inside a smaller circle. Outside the line drawn around us is normalcy and our great need for the physical presence of others, and within the circle is a new kind of complexity. Each of us is trying to figure out our new reality: unemployment, the birth of babies without our support network, staying healthy and caring for our mental health, educating our children, and Zoom fatigue. The circle feels constricting. And that’s because the discomfort we are experiencing during this pandemic is grief.
But as the world changed around us, Lent remained the same. It helped us maintain some sense of normal, even if our aspirations and practices for Lent fell by the wayside. The season matched the unwelcome change in our world and provided an apt space for the weighty cloud of grief. But now our friend Lent has bid us farewell. Usually Lent gives way to joy, but what if we’re still feeling sorrow? What if this is like standing at a departure gate with an unmanageable lump in your throat?
Lent is over but this pandemic isn’t.
Go Away, Easter.
The church calendar moves on and beckons us to celebrate. But can we celebrate at a time like this?
If I could go to our church office and get the short essay A Theology of Joy by Jürgen Moltmann, I would be able to offer you a wonderful quote or two. Alas, I am staying clear of our office as part of social distancing. Moltmann began his essay with a question, “How can we laugh and rejoice, when there are so many tears to be wiped away and when new tears are being added every day?”
From my recollection, Moltmann’s answer is essentially this: joy always takes place within a sorrowful and disordered world. If we pay close attention to the world around us, there is never an opportune time to celebrate. There is always something to mourn and grieve. And yet, joy beckons us and even takes ahold of us—even when things are not as they ought to be. Christianity is a “unique religion of joy” because our source of joy is paradoxically a world remade by a cross.
Moltmann says hope is anticipated joy. I like that. St. Augustine says something similar:
“The season before Easter signifies the troubles of the life we live here and now, while Easter and the season following it are a foretaste and promise of the joy that will be ours in the future. Easter points to something we do not yet possess. This is why we keep the season before the feast with fasting and prayer; but when the fast has ended we devote these present days to praise. This is the meaning of the Alleluia we sing.”
Even if joy evades us, we know it is on the horizon. The resurrection assures us of this.
Although we may not feel ready for the change of season, I want to point out some parallels that suggest we may be more ready than we realize. The first Easter day wasn’t exactly pure joy and celebration. Yes, there are moments of awe, wonder, and rejoicing. But in the gospel accounts of Easter day, there are also plenty of tears, confusion, uncertainty, disbelief, and fear. Let’s not overlook that the disciples locked themselves away in a room (… social distancing). They weren’t ready for resurrection any more than we are right now—but resurrection isn’t for a world that is prepared.
Resurrection bursts through the cracks of a broken world and takes ahold of us in our unreadiness. We might want to say, “Go away, Easter. I’m not ready for you yet. Let me sleep a little longer, just a little bit longer, in the darkness of Lent.” But resurrection is ready for us. Joy beckons. Even if we can’t take ahold of it, joy will take ahold of us. But this happens the same way love takes ahold of us. It’s not through coercion or force. Easter does not say to us, “Be happy, damn it!” Easter sits with us, ready, patient, and inevitably we will be disarmed and share in her smile. Her joy is radiant.
Calibrate for Joy
Every year we invite you to participate in our 50 Days of Joy challenge and this year is no different. But I want to be clear:
This challenge doesn’t mean you can’t feel anger, sorrow, sadness, or grief or that you need to ignore these feelings if they rise up. Research psychologists say we can’t selectively numb emotions. If you numb one you reduce them all. To our surprise, embracing and expressing our grief or frustration during Easter might actually make joy possible.
The 50 Days of Joy challenge isn’t about forcing manufactured joy or plastering a fake smile. You can’t make yourself feel joyful any more than you can will yourself to be taller. And perhaps some of the things that help bring you joy (such as communal worship in person, relationships, or the outdoors) are limited or removed at this time. However, you can point yourself toward joy, even if you can’t see how it will come. We suggest a few ways we can open ourselves up to joy: abide with Jesus, rejoice and focus on what is good, cultivate gratitude and thanksgiving, ask for the joy of seeing people coming to know Jesus, encourage someone, or simply ask for joy.
But perhaps today you’re not ready, and that’s okay. Perhaps start with hope. Once again, hope is joy anticipated. Jesus has been raised from the dead. Jesus will return. This world will be healed. We are destined for the fulfillment of Psalm 16:
“Therefore my heart is glad and my tongue rejoices; my body also will rest secure, because you will not abandon me to the realm of the dead, nor will you let your faithful one see decay. You make known to me the path of life; you will fill me with joy in your presence, with eternal pleasures at your right hand.”Psalm 16:9-11
This is our hope—and it will be our joy.