As First Reading describes it, when the Jews, newly returned to Jerusalem from captivity in Babylon, listened to Ezra read God’s word, they were minded to weep.
Who can blame them? Everything around them was so far from what it ought to be, from what God planned it to be, from what they themselves wanted it to be. All around them lay the ruins of what Israel and Jerusalem and the Temple and God’s people had once been and were meant to be.
And who among us fails to understand their attitude? We look at the mess we have made of the earth, and we are so discouraged. We see the unspeakable suffering of the afflicted, and we groan inwardly for our world. We look at the Church itself, which ought to be the light of the whole broken world; and we are tempted to despair. We turn inward to our own hearts, and what we see there makes us want to be invisible to others. In safe and quiet moments, we are minded to weep too, like the Jews of Ezra’s time.
And so the last line of the First Reading is more than a little surprising:
the joy of the Lord is our strength!
It is, of course, not surprising to hear that we must be strong. When everything lies in ruins around you, you can’t afford not to be strong.
But being strong is a matter of grim determination and hard work, isn’t it? Not according to the First Reading! It tells us that our strength lies in joy.
In fact, joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit. When a person opens to God and the Holy Spirit comes to dwell in him, then that person becomes fruitful; and joy is one of the fruits he bears. Because the God he loves is present in him, he has joy in the presence of his beloved Lord.
But if the Lord himself is with us and for us, what can be against us?
And so the prayer of St. Patrick makes sense: Christ with me, Christ before me, Christ behind me, Christ in me. … I arise today through the mighty strength of the Lord.
Who would not rejoice surrounded in this way by the Lord? This is strength indeed.
Eleonore Stump is Professor of Philosophy, Saint Louis University
**From Saint Louis University