April 8, 2016

Rejoice in the Lord

Easter joy and the laughter of redemption

Archbishop Joseph W. Tobin

Last week, I offered some reflections on the wonderful experience we call Easter joy. In that column, I observed that Easter joy flows from the experience of God’s mercy, from the forgiveness of our sins, and the absolution we have received from the Father whose face is mercy. Easter joy is our response to the grace of God—freely given and totally unmerited—simply because God loves us and wants us to be happy with him forever.

I also noted that Easter joy is the experience of heartfelt gratitude which overshadows all anxiety and fear. It allows us to breathe easily and let go of burdens that weigh us down. Christians can rejoice because the passion, death and resurrection of Jesus have set us free. We can be at peace because nothing—not even death—can separate us from God’s love and mercy.

Joy has been a major theme of the pontificate of Pope Francis. (His namesake, St. Francis of Assisi, was the supreme example of a man whose whole life gave witness to Gospel joy!) This year, especially, our Holy Father is inviting us to make the connection between God’s abundant mercy and the joy we experience as the beneficiaries of God’s love and forgiveness.

Joy is also prominent in the writings of Joseph Ratzinger, now Pope Emeritus Benedict XVI. In Behold the Pierced One, published in 1986, he writes about “the healing power of laughter” as it is revealed in the biblical story of Abraham and his son Isaac. “As he climbs the mountain, Isaac sees that there is no animal for the sacrifice. He asks his father about this and is told that God will provide [Gn 22:8]. Not until the very moment when Abraham lifts up his knife to slay Isaac do we grasp what this means. A ram is caught in the thicket and takes the place of Isaac as a sacrifice.”

How does this bittersweet story of Isaac’s last-minute rescue by the lamb caught in the thicket show us “the healing power of laughter”?

Then-Cardinal Ratzinger reminds us that the very name Isaac contains the Hebrew root for the word laughter, and is an allusion to “the sad, unbelieving laughter of Abraham and Sarah, who would not believe they could still have a son. But once the promise comes true, it turns into joyful laughter; crabbed loneliness is dissolved in the joy of fulfillment” (cf. Gn 17:17; 18:12; 21:6).

Jewish tradition refers the laughter not only to Isaac’s parents, but to the boy himself. “Did he not have cause to laugh when the sad and gruesome drama … suddenly brought liberty and redemption? This was a moment in which it was shown that the history of the world is not a tragedy, the inescapable tragedy of opposing forces, but divine comedy.” Isaac, the young man who thought his life was cruelly finished, was able to experience joy and to laugh.

The cardinal concludes his reflection by observing that you and I are Isaac; we are the children of Abraham and Sarah. “We climb up the mountain of time,” he says, “bearing with us the instruments of our own death.” Every step we take brings us closer to the moment when we will breathe our last. Does our life have meaning, or are we the victims of inescapable tragedy? Is our life a gift that inspires gratitude and joy, or are we the victims of a random and cruel fate?

If we are the heirs of Abraham and Sarah and, like Isaac, can see with the eyes of faith, the Lamb caught in the thicket (which foreshadows Christ on the cross) is revealed to us. “In this Lamb, we actually do glimpse heaven,” the cardinal says, “and we see God’s gentleness, which is neither indifference nor weakness but power of the highest order.”

He continues, “Since we see the Lamb, we can laugh and give thanks. … Jesus is Isaac, who, risen from the dead, comes down from the mountain with the laughter of joy in his face. All the words of the Risen One manifest this joy—this laughter of redemption: if you see what I see and have seen, if you catch a glimpse of the whole picture, you will laugh” (cf. Jn 16:20)!

Let’s laugh together in the spirit of Easter joy whenever life seems cruel and depressing. Yes, the problems we are facing may seem overwhelming now, but we are Easter people. We have seen the gentleness of God, and we have caught a glimpse of the joy of heaven. And so we can laugh and be grateful. Christ is risen! Alleluia! †

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