Lift Us to The Joy Divine!

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Column by Jonathan Nagy

Nearly 2000 years ago, on a dark Friday afternoon, all hope seemed to be lost. Jesus Christ had died on a cross and was laid in a tomb. The darkness that covered the earth also covered the souls of those who loved Him and followed Him. The preceding week held every emotion possible, and yet, none were prepared for the sadness and despair that came over them all. The next few days probably felt like an eternity, until that glorious Easter Sunday when He rose victoriously! All of the emotions that His followers felt were immediately replaced with a new one.

Joy.

Joy is more than just a feeling of happiness. Joy is a lasting emotion that comes from the choice to trust that God will fulfill His promises. On that first Easter morning, God indeed proved that He would fulfill all of His promises! No matter how many times Jesus tried telling the disciples what was going to happen, they could not understand, refused to accept it, or downright doubted His words. They may have experienced feelings of happiness around Jesus previously but had never come to accept joy. The best example may be the reaction of Saint Thomas, who, after putting his hand in Jesus’ side, exclaimed, “My Lord and my God!” At that moment, he felt unending joy, knowing, after first doubting, that Jesus had indeed risen from the dead.

The Bible is full of reminders of what joy is. Psalm 30:5 exclaims, “For His anger is but for a moment, and His favor is for a lifetime. Weeping may last for the night, but a shout of joy comes in the morning.” In foretelling his death and resurrection to the apostles in the Gospel of John, Jesus said, “Therefore you too have grief now; but I will see you again, and your heart will rejoice, and no one is going to take your joy away from you.” In Saint Paul’s Letter to the Philippians, he wrote, “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice!”

The promise of everlasting joy with God is given over and over again, but just like the disciples, so many are unwilling or unable to accept it. God wanted to hand them joy, just as He wants to hand us joy. God is reaching out, saying, “Trust me,” as any good father would say to his children. We have all heard our parents say, “Trust me, it will get better.” We do not want to believe them, but in time, things do get better, and we experience the joy of trusting that they have fulfilled their promises to us, just as God wants us to experience the same with Him.

In 1824, Ludwig von Beethoven wrote his Ninth Symphony which included the masterpiece, “Ode to Joy.” Completely deaf by this point, Beethoven had no idea how well received his work would be. At the conclusion of the fourth movement, his friend turned him around to see the crowd, who were giving a standing ovation. Beethoven smiled, knowing that he had come through in providing joy to those in attendance that day, and the hymn has become one of the most well-known throughout the world.

In 1907, Henry Van Dyke wrote the modern words that we all know so well. This hymn is by far my favorite of all time, and instills joy into my heart every time I sing, play, or listen to it, paying close attention to the lyrics:

Joyful, joyful, we adore Thee
God of glory, Lord of love
Hearts unfold like flowers before Thee
Opening to the Sun above
Melt the clouds of sin and sadness
drive the dark of doubt away
Giver of immortal gladness
fill us with the light of day.

All Thy works with joy surround Thee
Earth and heaven reflect Thy rays
Stars and angels sing around Thee
center of unbroken praise
Field and forest, vale and mountain
Flowery meadow, flashing sea
chanting bird and flowing fountain
call us to rejoice in Thee.

Thou art giving and forgiving
ever blessing, ever blest
well-spring of the joy of living
ocean-depth of happy rest
Thou art Father, Christ our Brother—
all who live in love are Thine
Teach us how to love each other
lift us to the Joy Divine.

Mortals join the mighty chorus
which the morning stars began
Father-love is reigning o’er us
brother-love binds man to man.
Ever singing, march we onward
victors in the midst of strife
joyful music lifts us sunward
in the triumph song of life.

These powerful lyrics draw us to the awesome glory of God and His creation. Hearts open like flowers to God, who does all things for us! God created us and the universe with love and joy and has laid it at our feet. It is up to us to accept that joy.

Living eternally in the joy of Heaven should be a desire for all, and just like the disciples with their early doubts, many do not accept that that joy is for them. God wants us all to share that joy with all of the saints and angels in glory and has given us the blueprints to do so. In his book, Faith Understood, Paul Zucarelli retells the story of his life and his near-death experience where he was given a glimpse of Heaven. Paul imparts great wisdom to all who read his story. One of my favorite takeaways from his book is a reminder to all of us. Paul wrote, “Remember you are made up of three parts. Your body, or physical tent, is one part. Your soul, where your mind, emotions, and free will reside, is the second part of you. The third and most important part is your spirit. This is where you interact with God and come to know His presence. This spiritual realm can only become alive in you after accepting Jesus. You will have peace on earth, knowing eternity awaits you. Many of us don’t think about death as we are caught up in living our daily lives. There is life after death, and it is eternal.”

I had a personal conversation with Paul on his visit to Loretto in October 2022, and he exudes joy in his mannerisms and his words. He has experienced joy in Heaven, and so looks forward to returning to God when his journey here is over. He believes that God sent him back in order to teach others what Heaven is like and provide them with details of the blueprint of the pathway to Heaven. I am truly grateful for having met Paul, and he continues to inspire thousands with his story. He describes himself as an ordinary man. He is hope for all of us “ordinary men and women” that the joy of God is not exclusive, but inclusive. We are all called to holiness, and all called to experience unending joy in Heaven.

Easter Sunday brings a feeling of eternal joy. Walking into any church should fill everyone with the spirit. The smells of the flowers, the beauty of the sanctuary, and the joy of knowing that Jesus conquered the grave overwhelms me every year, and more as I age. Holy Week is a tough week. If we take the time to really examine the readings and walk a mile with Jesus, his mother, and the disciples, it can overwhelm us. We may doubt that Easter Sunday will arrive. When it does, and the loud cries of “Alleluia” echo in our ears, hearts, and minds, we feel a small portion of the joy that awaits us with God in eternity.

Find the joy in life, not just the happiness. Happiness is fleeting, but joy is forever. Just like Paul Zucarelli, the most joyful people I know are those that have accepted Jesus Christ and His promises. The nuns at the Carmelite Monastery in Loretto are some of the most joyous people I know. They have very little in terms of earthly possessions, but possessing the trust in God’s Providence fills them with joy. Brother Lawrence Hogue of the Franciscan Friars of the Holy Spirit may be the single most joyous person I know. His devotion to Jesus and helping the least of His people is admirable. I once asked him if his ultimate goal was to become a priest. I will never forget his answer, when he said to me, “No, my ultimate goal, as pray is everyone’s goal, is to become a saint.” Reflecting on that thought brings hope and joy to my heart!

Accept the joy that is offered to us by God. Find yourself exclaiming like Saint Thomas, “My Lord and my God!” We have no greater friend than Jesus Christ, and He wants nothing more than to eternally share in joy with us in Heaven. Follow His words, follow His ways, and that hope will become a reality. May the joy of the resurrected Jesus bring eternal joy to your life and may you all spread that joy to others. I wish everyone a joyous Easter. He is risen! Truly He is risen!

Jonathan Nagy, M.Ed., is the Dean of Students and Social Studies teacher at Bishop Carroll Catholic High School in Ebensburg. He is also the Music Director at the Basilica of Saint Michael the Archangel in Loretto.