“Today is holy to the Lord your God. Do not be sad, and do not weep”—for all the people were weeping as they heard the words of the law. He said further, “Go, eat rich foods and drink sweet drinks, and allot portions to those who had nothing prepared; for today is holy to our Lord. Do not be saddened this day, for rejoicing in the Lord must be your strength.”
Nehemiah 8: 9-10
In the story from Nehemiah that we read today, we hear of Ezra’s public reading of the Torah to the people “from daybreak to midday.” As difficult as it is for us to identify, the whole assembly of women, men, and children “old enough to understand” remained fully attentive and engaged throughout the hours. Their initial reaction to this encounter with God’s law was to be sad and to weep. Isn’t perhaps this our first reaction when we truly encounter what it is that God asks of us and realize how far our day to day life and concerns are from that call? Yet, Ezra and Nehemiah declare to the people that the manifestation of God’s holiness is rather a cause for joy. They tell the people to go and celebrate, to include in the celebration their neighbors, and to rejoice for “the Lord must be your strength.”
We tend in our age to pathologize sadness. Although we know the words well enough, the meaning of the beatitudes “Blessed are those who weep for they shall rejoice” and “Blessed are they who mourn, for they shall be comforted” for the most part tends to escape us. Yet the truth remains that true joy can only be known by those who dare to be sad and to weep.
Adrian van Kaam says that we can only know dissonance in the light of consonance, in other words, the knowledge of our deepest reality and possibility goes hand in hand with our awareness of having failed them. We are made for consonance, for love, and settling for less than that should make us sad. This sadness, however, is a blessed sadness that makes possible a joy that, to quote Jesus, “no one can take from you.” (“Now you are having pain. But I’ll see you again, and your hearts will rejoice, and no one will take your joy away from you.” John 16:22)
A psychotherapist friend used to say: “So many people are doing the hurting dance and don’t even know it.” Soren Kierkegaard in The Sickness Unto Death makes the same point more philosophically: “ An individual is furthest from being conscious of himself as spirit when he is ignorant of being in despair. But precisely this—not to be conscious of oneself as spirit—is despair, which is spiritlessness.” The sadness which overcomes the hearers of the Law in Nehemiah and of which Jesus speaks in the Beatitudes is a the manifestation of ourselves as spirit. It is the felt recognition of the distance between who we really are and what we have made of ourselves.
Such a recognition, such a contact with ourselves as spirit, is what ultimately makes true joy possible. As Ezra and Nehemiah tell the people, “Do not be sad, and do not weep . . . for today is holy to our Lord.” The holiness, the covenantal love of God for us, is far greater than our sinfulness. Once we recognize and acknowledge them, we are to turn our gaze from our own failures to the far greater love, mercy, and fidelity of God. In that light we dance and rejoice, even as we weep.
There are some souls on earth
Who search in vain for happiness,
But for me, it’s just the opposite.
Joy is in my heart.
This joy is not ephemeral.
I possess it forever.
Like the springtime rose,
It smiles at me every day.
Truly I’m so happy,
I always have my way. . . .
How could I not be joyful
And not show my cheerfulness?
My joy is to love suffering,
I smile while shedding tears.
I accept with gratitude
The thorns mingled with the flowers.
When the blue sky becomes somber
And begins to abandon me,
My joy is to stay in the shadow
To hide and humble myself.
My joy is the Holy Will
Of Jesus, my only love,
So I live without any fear.
I love the night as much as the day.
My joy is to stay little,
So when I fall on the way,
I can get up very quickly,
And Jesus takes me by the hand.
Then I cover him with caresses
And tell him He’s everything for me,
And I’m twice as tender
When he slips away from my faith
If sometimes I shed tears,
My joy is hide them well.
Oh! how many charms there are in suffering
When one knows how to hide it with flowers!
I truly want to suffer without saying so
That Jesus may be consoled.
My joy is to see him smile
When my heart is exiled. . . .
St. Therese of Lisieux, trans. by Donald Kinney, OCD