PASCHA Joy, or not

Holy Nativity is growing! We had 68 for PASCHA. It was glorious. Or was it? Why is it that two people can share what appears to be the exact same experience, but each come away with very different impressions of it? One comment I heard from a visitor was “You just keep repeating the same thing over and over again” [Christ is risen]. We certainly do! I can see how that could seem rather empty to someone for whom “Christ is risen” is just a piece of information, a datum: “O yes, it is Easter, Christ is risen, yes, so what else is going on?”
The Paschal homily of St. John Chrysostom, the sermon read in every Orthodox Church at the PASCHA Liturgy, encourages everyone to come to the Feast–the ascetics and the negligent, those who kept the fast and those who disregarded the fast. God receives both the labor (for those who strove to prepare themselves through repentance during the Fast) and the intention (for those who did not but wish they had). The Feast is the same for everyone. The difference is not on God’s side. God receives all who come to Him. God offers the same Feast to all. The Feast cannot be any different because the feast is God Himself. Christ is the “fatted calf” sacrificed for the Feast at the prodigal son’s return.
But some do not keep the feast. Maybe they just are not hungry. Maybe, like the older brother in the parable of the prodigal son, they are too distracted to feast, worrying about what is fair or not fair, what is their due versus what is due others. Maybe, like many of us, all of life has been reduced to data and feelings (passions) and the rational processes they have found useful to manipulate the data to stimulate or get relief from the feelings.
It reminds me of Jeremiah 17:2 [17:6 in Protestant Bibles]:”For he shall be like a shrub in the desert. He shall not see when good things come.” This passage compares a shrub, that doesn’t even notice when the rains come, to a tree with deep roots that continues to bear fruit in a drought. The difference between the two is not rain vs. drought. They both experience both. Rather, the difference is the plant itself. The shrub, dead even while it lives (c.f. 1Tim. 5:6), doesn’t even notice when God showers blessings. The man who trust in the Lord, however, is a tree with root that reach down to the water. When drought comes, as it does to every life at various seasons, this man continues to bear the fruit of virtue, the fruit of the Spirit: Love, Joy, Peace, Patience, Kindness, Gentleness, Self Control. However, returning to the experience of PASCHA Joy, the shrub just doesn’t notice much.
It’s important that you do not misunderstand me. First, and most important, this in not a criterion by which we can judge others. The passage in Jeremiah goes on to say, “The heart is deep and beyond all things, and it is the man. Even so, who can know him? I the Lord, examine the heart…” (OSB Septuagint translation). Only God knows the heart, which is the man. I cannot judge another man’s heart, ever. Second, the amount of Paschal Joy we experience or don’t experience is only an indicator, it only suggests that all is well or that something may be amiss in our relationship with God. Learning to live in God, to walk in the Spirit, to pay attention to the inner man of the heart is a life-long process. Our experiences in prayer are important indicators, but they are only partial indicators. They are not irrelevant, but neither are they very reliable. Just like the seasons of the year, the seasons of the spiritual life are sometimes dry and sometimes rainy (except in BC where it is sometimes warm rain and sometimes cold rain). If you didn’t seem to experience much Joy in PASCHA, you should examine yourself. It may be that you were a little sick in body or mind. It may be that you were disturbed by a relationship problem. It may be that you have been ignoring God. Whatever it is, look to God. Christ receives us, the last and the first, the strong and the weak, the spiritual giant and the spiritual chicken. I often remind myself when I am overwhelmed with my own weaknesses that although I am a mess, I am God’s mess. Whatever we are or are not, it is good to be God’s.

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