Living Easter Joy

We all have that one friend that cannot keep a surprise party a secret. We can think of someone who prematurely yells out “Surprise!” several seconds too soon, before an unsuspecting birthday guest is able to turn on the light switch and reveal a roomful of his or her closest friends.

In some ways, today’s culture is like that surprise spoiler. Our society does not know how to celebrate feasts very well. No one wants to be the one who spoiled the surprise or ruined the party, but generally our pattern of celebrating seems to do just that. We begin celebrating way too early. We are like children who cannot wait to open their presents, so we decide to celebrate now because we cannot wait. By the time the special day arrives we have no energy left because it was used up over a span of days or weeks beforehand.

This reality is most apparent when our society anticipates Christmas. Lights and decorations adorn storefronts and houses more than a month beforehand, but when Christmas comes, we are tired of Christmas music and chaos, and we just want it all to be over with. We are quick to take down festive décor and turn our attention to the next holiday.

It was not until I entered the monastery that I appreciated how the Church teaches us to celebrate special days. Before you allow your imagination to run wild with images of lavish monastery parties and excessive consumption of homemade beer brewed from ancient monastic recipes, let me explain. As monks, we follow a particular daily schedule—the regular round of prayer and work which punctuates our day. When the bells ring, St. Benedict instructs the monk immediately to “set aside what he has in hand and go with utmost speed” to the oratory for the Work of God.

Since our time spent in the Abbey Basilica takes priority in our day, we find ourselves immersed in the Church’s liturgical year. When there is a feast or solemnity, we rejoice and celebrate, while on special days of penitence, particularly during the ascribed days during Lent, we fast and abstain. These times of penance help us to appreciate the days allotted for celebration. In a certain sense, the fast days make the feast days that much more joyful.

Preparing for the Easter Season

St. Benedict only mentions Easter a handful of times in his Rule. But, in Chapter 49 of the Rule of St. Benedict, he writes about how monks are to observe the season of Lent. St. Benedict encourages his monks to use this preparatory season in order to “wash away the negligences of the past.” He calls monks to uproot bad habits and redirect, refocus, and reorient their lives to Christ. It is a time of conversion and repentance. St. Benedict suggests, “Let each one deny himself some food, drink, sleep, needless talking and idle jesting, and look forward to holy Easter with joy and spiritual longing.”

I experience Easter as a special time of rejoicing because of the reality of the mystery of our faith that we celebrate, but also because of the 40 challenging days that lead up to it. At Conception Abbey we abstain from desserts, have simpler meals, and we “fast” from the pipe organ during our regular prayer times during Lent when we gather to pray the Divine Office. I look forward with spiritual longing for the days when we hear the joyful hymns and melodies at Easter and the singing of the Alleluias.

Easter is not just a single day’s celebration. We celebrate the Easter Octave (eight days), but more than that, just as we had 40 days of penance during Lent, we have 50 days of rejoicing during the Easter season. Just as it is difficult to take on various penances for an extended period of time, it is challenging to be joyful for the long haul. I am not encouraging forced smiles or a kind of giddiness, but there is a type of consistent, peaceful, and stable joy that comes from a transformative encounter with the Risen Christ.

Encountering the Risen Christ

After the death of Jesus, the Apostles were fearful as they locked themselves in the house. Mary Magdalene was weeping by the tomb, saddened by the horrible death of her teacher and friend, and Thomas was simply filled with doubt at the news of Jesus’ resurrection. Fear, sadness, and doubt are feelings that all of us know well. The situation for them seemed desperate and bleak, like many in our society who are overwhelmed by grief and weighed down by anxieties. But, something changed for the disciples. Their encounter with the Risen Lord changed everything. In a short time, grown men and women were running with amazement like little children, eager to share the good news of what they experienced. An encounter with the Risen Lord made Peter, a grown man, make an impulsive decision to jump into the sea and swim to Jesus, because apparently arriving to land in the boat with dry clothes was not good enough. This encounter with the Risen Christ changed hearts. This is the experience of joy that we all desire—to have our hope restored, and to allow the light to cast out the darkness and fear in our lives.

Joy in Many Forms

In Evangelii Gaudium, Pope Francis wrote, “There are Christians whose lives seem like Lent without Easter. I realize of course that joy is not expressed the same way at all times in life, especially at moments of great difficulty. Joy adapts and changes, but it always endures, even as a flicker of light born of our personal certainty that, when everything is said and done, we are infinitely loved. I understand the grief of people who have to endure great suffering, yet slowly but surely we all have to let the joy of faith slowly revive as a quiet yet firm trust, even amid the greatest distress” (6). The Easter joy of which I speak is the deep knowledge of knowing the Father’s love. Our hardships and struggles are not removed, but our hope is restored and rightly placed in Jesus Christ alone.

We might experience Christ while we are alone in prayer, but Easter joy is most beautifully celebrated with others. There are several instances in the Gospel when the Resurrected Christ appeared to the disciples while they were together. The Gospel of John recounts, “Jesus came and stood in their midst and said to them, ‘Peace be with you.’” (20:19). The disciples shared in fear and anxiety, but they also shared together the power of Christ’s peace to cast out fear and grant forgiveness.

In the monastery we support and encourage one another through a variety of difficulties, and we celebrate with one another during joyful times. In a world of individualism, social media and superficial relationships, all people long for a deep sense of belonging and communion with one another. We undertake the spiritual journey with others, which requires us to be willing to invest the time and energy to engage personally with others and show interest in their lives. Friends of mine who have families do not have the benefit of specified times for prayer and the structure that the monastery provides, but they remain strong in their faith by uniting with other young families to form a sense of community and to encourage one another in their challenges.

Remain with Christ

My favorite encounter with the Risen Christ occurs on the Road to Emmaus (Luke 24:13-35). The two disciples on the road could be criticized for many things—their lack of hope, being downcast, or their lack of understanding. However, when it mattered most, they chose wisely. As they approached the village, they did not know it was Jesus who was walking with them, but they knew that this ‘stranger’ was captivating and his words enflamed their hearts. They urged him, “Stay with us” (24:29). Their openness and their hospitality were rewarded. Had they not pressed Jesus to remain, they may not have understood He had truly risen. Jesus would have remained to them just another traveler on the way.

We cannot be blinded by the excitement of Easter and forget to ask Jesus to remain with us. It was only in spending the extended time with Jesus that the two disciples finally recognized Him. We need to open our eyes to Christ’s presence—in His Word proclaimed, in the breaking of bread, and also in our interactions with one another. Jesus cannot be a stranger or an unrecognizable voice to us. This is why our daily prayer, even in the midst of a busy schedule, is essential. We live Easter joy when we invite Christ into our hearts and constantly pray, “Stay with us, Lord.”         

­—Fr. Paul Sheller, OSB