As I was praying through the Maronite Morning Pray (known as "Safro") this morning, I was struck by a short phrase in "Nuhro" (The Hymn of Light). The phrase goes: "Our King comes in majestic glory... Let us find our joy in Him, for He has found joy in us. He will indeed rejoice us with His marvelous light."
So often when we approach God we approach either with a sense of duty and obligation, or otherwise we approach like a dog approaching its master - somehow compelled to respond to God for no other reason than that we've been conditioned to do so - or we approach God with a sense of guilt and fear. How often do we approach God the way a bride approaches her groom on the day of their wedding? How often do we approach God with this sense of joy in Who He is, the way He approaches us with joy in who we are, who He created us to be? Even when we have been unfaithful to Him through our own sinfulness, He still approaches us with this joy! Look at the story of the prodigal son. Before the son even has a chance to apologize to his father, the father rejoices in his return, robes him, puts rings on his fingers and shoes on his feet, throws him a party, etc., etc., etc. and the son hasn't even had a chance to express his deep sorrow for abandoning the loving care of his father!
Do we hold this vision of God? Or do we believe in some Zeus-like entity waiting to strike us down with a bolt of lightning the minute we slip up? Oh sure, our God is a God of justice. But He is also a God of mercy and compassion, as the Psalms tell us. I believe it was St. Symeon the New Theologian who emphasized the mercy of God in his spirituality, because he knew that if God was only just and not merciful then none of us would be deserving of eternal life.
How often I could repeat that phrase to myself, meditating on it over and over, slowly until it becomes a part of who I am and how I approach God and others: Let us find our joy in Him, for He has found joy in us. Christianity is not a religion of guilt. Too often our media portrays Christians as people with a guilt-complex and an inferiority-complex masking itself as humility. This is a distortion of Christianity in general, and Catholicism and Orthodoxy in particular. We are not people of guilt. We are people of joy. For God has so loved us, so found joy in us, that He saw fit to send His only Son - Light of Light and True God of True God - that all who believe in Him might have eternal life. And what is eternal life if not eternal communion with God, who has found his joy in us! If we do not have joy in God now, how can we expect to rejoice in Him in the age to come?
I remember one Laetare Sunday (aka "Pink Sunday") during Lent at a Roman parish up in Ann Arbor, MI. During the pastor's homily he mentioned the shortest verse in the Bible. Many people believe that the shortest verse is "Jesus wept" (John 11:35). This isn't true. That may be the shortest verse in English. But in the original languages, particularly in Greek, the shortest verse is found in 1 Thessolonians 5:16. The phrase in Greek is "Pantote cairete," which translates into English as "Be joyful always." This homily has stuck with me for many years because it puts our entire Faith into perspective. Our Faith is not a Faith of weeping and mourning. We are not called to maintain some sort of guilt complex because we are not morally perfect beings. Rather, our Faith is a Faith of joy and rejoicing because while we were mired in sin and darkness, God Himself took the initiative to come to us and show us His Light, offering that Light and Life to us!
Repentance from sin, as is so clearly shown in the liturgical texts of the Byzantine tradition for Great Lent, is not meant to imply a guilt complex, but a joyful turning from our former darkened ways to the true Light and Life of God! This is also clearly shown in the ritual for Baptism in both the Byzantine and the Roman traditions. In the Byzantine tradition we still physically turn from the West - the realm of death and darkness - to the East - the realm of light and life from where we expect our Savior to return at the end of the age. Even liturgically the Divine Liturgy (and Roman Mass for that matter) was not traditionally celebrated either with the priest's back to the people or "facing the high altar." Traditionally the entire congregation faced East in eschatological hope for the return of our Savior. In some church buildings this meant that at the time of the Consecration of the Eucharist the people would have their backs to the priest!
I don't mention this to argue for or against the tendency in the Roman Church today to have Mass celebrated facing the people, or the counter-tendency to restore Mass facing away from the people. I mention this to highlight the joyful expectation that the early Christians had in Christ, and the joyful hope with which they awaited His return. They looked around and exclaimed "maranatha," "Come Lord Jesus," not because they saw darkness in the world and wanted it to end, but because they had seen His Light and rejoiced in it, longing for all of creation to be bathed in that Light!
I think too this is one of the reasons I've so loved the writings of people like Archbishop Joseph Raya, Fr. George Maloney, the Servant of God Catherine Doherty, and others - particularly Raya. These people truly found their joy in God. From a simple lay Russian immigrant, to a highly educated Jesuit, to an Archbishop in the Melkite Church, to them the spiritual life didn't consist purely in feeling guilt over our sins, but primarily in "finding joy in Him, Who has found joy in us!" Repentance and conversion are certainly part of the spiritual life. But we repent and convert because we have seen and experience the great love that the Father showers upon us through the Son in the power of the Holy Spirit! When bathed in such light we can't help but see our own sinfulness. And we can't help but repent and convert our ways from sinfulness because we too want to become light! A famous saying from a desert father goes, "If you will, you can become all fire!"
"We have seen the true Light! We have received the Heavenly Spirit" we sing at the Divine Liturgy after receiving Holy Communion. This light has "shed the light of knowledge upon the world." We know not only our own sinfulness, but above all God's great love for us and just what lengths He is willing to go to in order to be united to us. What man, having met the woman of his dreams, would not bend over backwards in order to win (and keep) her heart? There's a great Irish song in which the man sings about climbing all the hills in the land and swimming all the waters in the sea, just to be able to kiss the lily-white hand of his beloved. We hear that and we think that it's such a beautiful poetic image. What woman wouldn't swoon over a man who loved her enough to overcome any difficulty just to be with her, even if only for a moment? Mention Jane Austin's Pride and Prejudice to just about any woman, and their eyes will almost immediately glaze over as they think of Mr. Darcy and all he went through just to win Elizabeth Bennet's heart!
I tease, of course. But if we find such poetic images and such stories so compelling, we need to wake up and see what is right in front of us. We as Christians believe that God really did overcome all the impossible odds just so that He could be united to us! What sort of odds are we willing to overcome in order to be united to Him? Many of the great saints went through enormous suffering just so that they could draw closer to God, and still that suffering doesn't even compare to what He has done for us. How often we take this for granted! "God so loved the world that He sent His only Son..." We hear that phrase all the time, but have we really thought about it, prayed over it, pondered it? I know I haven't, because I find myself continuing to fall into the same old sins and failures that I've half-heartedly struggled against for years and years. And yet, despite my half-hearted efforts, God continues to reach out to me and offer me His Light, His Life, because He finds joy in me! Such love! Such unfathomable love!
So let us find our joy in God. Let us rejoice in Him every day. Because He has rejoiced in us from all eternity. He rejoices in you personally. He rejoices in me personally. All we need do is respond! May heaven consume us!