The book of common prayer (the graveside service) reads, “In the midst of life we are in death”. How then can joy be found in such a world? The world itself cannot rightly be the source of joy, as Augustine notes, vita misera est, mors incerta est (“Life is miserable, death uncertain”‘ Confessions Book VI, chapter 11). How then can joy be found? For some perhaps joy will be their privilege by disposition or circumstance — but such joys will necessarily be “vain” as Ecclesiastes says — vaporous, for the inexorable weight of death will strangle a joy of circumstance. At some point we will end alone.
So how and where can joy be found? The Scripture commends joy throughout, yet it is a joy of which rests not in circumstance but a joy which rests in God. How is this demonstrated and how is such joy obtained?
Consider the Feast of Booths commanded in Leviticus 23:39-43:
39 “On the fifteenth day of the seventh month, when you have gathered in the produce of the land, you shall celebrate the feast of the LORD seven days. On the first day shall be a solemn rest, and on the eighth day shall be a solemn rest.
40 And you shall take on the first day the fruit of splendid trees, branches of palm trees and boughs of leafy trees and willows of the brook, and you shall rejoice before the LORD your God seven days.
41 You shall celebrate it as a feast to the LORD for seven days in the year. It is a statute forever throughout your generations; you shall celebrate it in the seventh month.
42 You shall dwell in booths for seven days. All native Israelites shall dwell in booths,
43 that your generations may know that I made the people of Israel dwell in booths when I brought them out of the land of Egypt: I am the LORD your God.”
The Israelites are to rejoice as they remember that God had rescued them from Egypt. It was this which caused Jethro to rejoice:
8 Then Moses told his father-in-law all that the LORD had done to Pharaoh and to the Egyptians for Israel’s sake, all the hardship that had come upon them in the way, and how the LORD had delivered them.
9 And Jethro rejoiced for all the good that the LORD had done to Israel, in that he had delivered them out of the hand of the Egyptians.
Exodus 18:8-9. The story of God’s rescue was a cause to rejoice. How then could the people rejoice — even in the wilderness (as Bunyan wrote, “the wilderness of this world”)? We may rejoice when we remember and discuss what God has done.
Note that this does not negate the tragedy of life or the pain of this world. Rather, the pain and sorrow of life forms the contrast which makes the joy possible. You see, joy points to what God has done in the midst of trial: They are to rejoice when they recall that God “brought them out of the land of Egypt” (Leviticus 23:43).
Such memory may be most necessary in the midst of present trial and sorrow: in the middle of pain, the pain can overwhelm one’s sense of all else. The pain seems as if it could never end. The future looks hopeless. That is when memory can be of great good. Memory reaches back to what has happened; it reaches outside of the present and demonstrates, It has not always been as this. Joy fetches strength from the past. Joy flowers from the faith and hope which comes from knowledge who God is (note that the ground of joy in Leviticus 23:43 ends with “I am the LORD your God”) and what God has done.