Sacred Scripture and the lives and writings of the Saints agree: as a fruit of the Holy Spirit, joy should not be an occasional state of being. “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice”, St. Paul writes to the Philippians (Phil 4:4, RSV). St. Theophane Venard (quoted in the Fraternus book for this week) writes, “Be merry, really merry. The life of a true Christian should be a perpetual jubilee”. Think of recent Saints such as Pope Saint John Paul II or St. Teresa of Calcutta who were and are much loved for their contagious joy.
“What if I don’t feel happy all the time?”, one might ask, “Does that mean I’m not living up to the Christian standard of rejoicing always?” Contemporary language and culture often make it difficult to grasp the meaning of “joy”. “Joy” is often conflated with “happiness” and what is commonly valued in the culture can distort a man’s understanding of where joy resides or from Whom it arises. A closer look at this Christian joy is needed.
To attempt a recovery of distinction between “joy” and “happiness”, a look back at the origin and early usage of the words may be helpful. Linguists trace “happy” back to sometime in or around the 14th century with meanings of lucky, fortunate, prosperous, or being in advantageous circumstances. Even without the linguists, a layman can see that “happy” looks a whole lot like “happenstance”. The word “happy”, then, appears to point to material or perceived goods that elicit a feeling of pleasure. Feelings, by their nature, are fleeting. “Joy” traces back to about the same time as “happy” with meanings of gladness, delight, source of pleasure or happiness or, in the case of “rejoice”, to own, to possess, to enjoy the possession or fruition of. The words “joy” and “rejoice” point to the source of one’s gladness and, even more, to the possession of that source.
Drawing the distinction between these words brings new meaning to St. Paul’s exhortation to “Rejoice in the Lord always”. It is not a matter of feeling good (being happy) in the Lord; rather, St. Paul is inviting the Christian to enjoy the possession of the Lord as the source of his joy. After giving Himself in the first Eucharist, Jesus prays for his disciples and all that will come to believe in Him, “even as you, Father, are in me, and I in you, that they also may be in us, so that the world may believe that you have sent me” (Jn 17:21, RSV). It is the explicit will of the Father, revealed through the Son, and fulfilled by the Holy Spirit that man should share in (take possession of) the divine life of the Holy Trinity. This divine life is the source of man’s joy and true happiness. Through the virtue of hope, the Christian man takes possession of the yet unseen reality of union with God in Heaven. In so doing, his life becomes one marked by joy “so that the world may believe”.