Most Christians would agree, however reluctantly, with Thomas à Kempis's affirmation that “a good man always finds reason enough for mourning and weeping.” Leafing through the morning paper with its tales of abductions, wars, natural catastrophes, terrorism, pedophilia, and other sundry horrors, one might be tempted to conclude that perhaps a pessimist is, after all, nothing other than a well-informed optimist. Long ago the earth was christened a “vale of tears,” and to date no one has produced compelling evidence to the contrary.
While Christians readily acknowledge this reality, they don't stop here. The tidings of Christianity, the “Good News” (eu-angelion), are not tidings of sadness but of profound joy. The angels' announcement to the shepherds—“I bring you good news of great joy for all the people”—reveals the true kernel of Christianity. Years ago the noted theologian Hans Urs von Balthasar wrote that the message of Christianity “is not incidentally a message of joy as well as being many other things: it is quite simply joy.”
Not all accept this, of course. Christians, and Catholics in particular, have often been accused of propagating a negative vision of life and earthly realities. Strict moral rules, it is said, coupled with talk of penance, the cross, and final judgment, rob Christians of spontaneity and joy (though, curiously enough, there was no great outpouring of joy when preachers abandoned these topics a generation ago). In Salt of the Earth, the recent book-length interview with Cardinal Joseph Ratzinger, his disenchanted interviewer, Peter Seewald, raises these same shopworn criticisms. “Many think that the Christian-Catholic religion is the expression of a pessimistic world view,” states Seewald, and he adds that “the truth about man and God often seems sad and hard.” Cardinal Ratzinger, whom critics love to characterize as being himself an inveterate pessimist, responds that quite the contrary is true. “The basic element of Christianity,” the cardinal counters, “is joy.”
The joy Cardinal Ratzinger speaks of has little in common with the superficial glee that masquerades under the same name. Far from expressing interior joy, such mirth often veils inner desperation and angst. The deeper joy that Christianity proposes, his eminence notes, “comes from the fact that there is great love, and that is the essential message of faith. You are unswervingly loved.”
Joy, at least of the more profound and lasting sort, seems to be in ever shorter supply. At year-end, amidst the seasonal festivities of Christmas and New Year, talk of joy abounds. Glasses are raised and dutifully drained to the proposal of a Happy New Year for all, to the accompanying din of music, chatter, and much general merrymaking. It must be remembered, however, that this time of year also witnesses a peak in suicides and general depression as people are overwhelmed by the grim realization that their real situations represent a painful contrast to the happy sentiments that bubble forth from their lips.
In the face of life's trials Christianity offers more than a quick fix; it offers substantial hope. This hope doesn't overlook the cross, but it does transcend it. As the Apostle reminds us, “the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed to us” (Rom 8, 18).
This is why Christianity “lite” just doesn't cut it. Simply telling people “Don't worry, be happy” rings of falsehood and romanticism. “In the world you will have tribulation,” our Lord cautioned his disciples, “but be of good cheer, I have overcome the world” (Jn 16, 33). Tribulation and joy are not mutually exclusive. Joy becomes possible not through the negation of suffering, but when suffering itself is given meaning and value. The Viennese psychologist Victor Frankl was wont to quote Friedrich Nietzsche as saying that “a man can endure almost any how if only he has a why.” In Auschwitz, in the very bosom of Nazism's inferno, Frankl discovered the possibility of salvation. This became the why that allowed him to survive the most dreadful of hows.
Returning to Kempis's claim, perhaps we could say that though there is indeed reason enough for mourning, Christians enjoy the privilege and even bear a responsibility to rejoice. Paul's injunction still resounds: “Rejoice in the Lord always. I say it again, Rejoice!” (Phil 4, 4). Our world needs to hear once again the joyful tidings that “today, in the City of David, a savior has been born to you, who is Christ the Lord.” It needs to contemplate this joy lived out by men and women convinced that the final victory has been won, that night is far spent and day is at hand.
The New Year brings with it new challenges and opportunities, as well as uncertainties and even fears. These elements come together to form a tapestry, a backdrop to the stage where life's drama is played out. It is here, in the concrete circumstances of every day, where Christians live out their vocation to joy and hope. “Amid all the fear that characterizes our time,” Von Balthasar wrote, “we Christians are summoned to live in joy and communicate joy.” Our generous, faith-filled response to that summons is what transforms the drama of life from tragedy to triumph.
Father Thomas Williams is rector of the general directorate of the Legionaries of Christ in Rome.