Words hardly do justice to the sense of joy we had Wednesday night when the white smoke went up from the Sistine Chapel, and the Church received the new Roman Pontiff. I was fortunate enough to be in St Peter’s Square when it happened—and I lack the superlatives to describe how exuberant we all were as a crowd in that moment.
And yet, it soon occurred to me what an interesting paradox we had on our hands: what we applauded, what filled us with a new hope, what gave us such joy that night was that Our Lord was laying upon this man’s shoulders a weight that will assuredly bring him to his death. “When you grow old, you will stretch out your hands, and somebody else will put a belt around you, and take you where you would rather not go.
It might strike the world as odd. But for Christians, this kind of thing is normal. To rejoice in suffering. To see hope in trial. What is their secret?
I think this is one of the lessons that Christ taught St Peter very personally, in order to prepare him for the role he was to play in the Church. He taught him that it is precisely in this contradiction—grace amid sorrow—that we can most truly see the hand of the Lord at work.
St Peter’s first letter points out how clearly he understood this: “This is a cause of great joy for you, even though you may for a short time have to bear being plagued by all sorts of trials; so that, when Jesus Christ is revealed, your faith will have been tested and proved like gold…and then you will have praise and glory and honor.” (1,6) He saw that as Christ had suffered, so too we will follow: “Set yourselves close to him, so that you too, the holy priesthood that offers the spiritual sacrifices which Jesus Christ has made acceptable to God, may be living stones making a spiritual house.” (2,4) Ours is a joy that in Christ, our sufferings mean salvation: “If you can have some share in the sufferings of Christ, be glad, because you will enjoy a much greater gladness when his glory is revealed.” (4,13)
Christian joy will forever confound the world. Ours is not the passing glee of festivity, or a momentary escape from the temptations, misunderstandings, and discouragements which plague us every day. It is the reason the Lent of our earthly lives can be filled with light. It is the source of the Beatitudes. It is Christ’s best kept secret. It is perhaps his most poignant and yet unspoken characteristic—here I close with Chesterton’s well known conclusion to his masterpiece, Orthodoxy:
“Joy, which was the small publicity of the pagan, is the gigantic secret of the Christian. And as I close this chaotic volume I open again the strange small book from which all Christianity came; and I am again haunted by a kind of confirmation. The tremendous figure which fills the Gospels towers in this respect, as in every other, above all the thinkers who ever thought themselves tall. His pathos was natural, almost casual. The Stoics, ancient and modern, were proud of concealing their tears. He never concealed His tears; He showed them plainly on His open face at any daily sight, such as the far sight of His native city. Yet He concealed something. Solemn supermen and imperial diplomatists are proud of restraining their anger. He never restrained His anger. He flung furniture down the front steps of the Temple, and asked men how they expected to escape the damnation of Hell. Yet He restrained something. I say it with reverence; there was in that shattering personality a thread that must be called shyness. There was something that He hid from all men when He went up a mountain to pray. There was something that He covered constantly by abrupt silence or impetuous isolation. There was some one thing that was too great for God to show us when He walked upon our earth; and I have sometimes fancied that it was His mirth.”