“And Nehemiah, who was the governor, and Ezra the priest and scribe, and the Levites who taught the people said to all the people, ‘This day is holy to the Lord your God; do not mourn or weep.’ For all the people wept as they heard the words of the Law. Then he said to them, ‘Go your way. Eat the fat and drink sweet wine and send portions to anyone who has nothing ready, for this day is holy to our Lord. And do not be grieved, for the joy of the Lord is your strength.’ So the Levites calmed all the people, saying, ‘Be quiet, for this day is holy; do not be grieved.’ And all the people went their way to eat and drink and to send portions and to make great rejoicing, because they had understood the words that were declared to them.” – Nehemiah 8:9-12
Yesterday I left my house before the sun rose and returned home long after it had set again.
If you’ve ever done this, you know what such a long day can do to a person. Somehow, there’s something reassuring in leaving home every morning after the sun has steadily climbed in the sky for a little while. It is a huge relief, I think, to start the day with proof that the world doesn’t depend on my work to continue as it always does. The sun rises even when I sleep in late.
As someone who likes to run outside in the evenings before the sun has set, I also cherish those days when I make it home in time to spend an hour in the glow of the sunset. Life in late fall in North America makes it nearly impossible to leave after the sunrise and return before dark since the days only grow shorter until winter truly sets in.
On days like yesterday, something happens to me. My calm center is shaken. I tend to be a person who thrives on schedules, but if I’m up before the sun, I feel rushed all day long. If I come home to darkness, I immediately want to sleep, despite the fact that the sun begins to set around 6 PM here these days!
Days like yesterday are not healthy for me. I found myself dejected as I left and returned home, as well as at various points throughout the day.
There is something to that connection between our physical environments and our minds. A psychologist might call it the psychosomatic nature of human beings. In this sense, the word ‘psychosomatic’ does not refer to an affliction produced by a compromised mental state as it so often does in the medical field. On a similar plane, however, it refers to the idea that physiology and psychology are connected, that they influence one another.
As I’ve studied (and studied and studied) church history this semester and read many works of the church’s early theologians, I’ve been surprised by the amount of psychological truth that lies, sometimes hidden, within those pages. Most of the works I’ve read recently were written over a millennium ago and so naturally they do not delve into the complex scientific processes of the human body and mind. Still, I’ve learned much from these authors who have been dead for many centuries.
For example, a theologian in the 4th century named Apollinaris believed that Jesus Christ did not have a human soul. Instead, he had the logos, the word or the wisdom of God, which resided within his human body and became the governing force of his body in lieu of a soul. Apollinaris’ theological opponents were many.
Another theologian, Cyril of Alexandria, emphasized the union of the whole person (body and soul) of Jesus with the divine logos in the incarnation. He believed the two natures of Jesus to be united to the extent that they were inseparable. He used a human being as an example. “You can’t separate a person’s body from their soul,” he might have said. I (and many psychologists and physicians and scientists since) couldn’t agree more.
Even though there is much scientific evidence backing up the psychosomatic nature of human beings, we really don’t even need it to confirm what we already know. Few people are happy when they are ill. On the flip side, it is so challenging to feel energized and healthy while fighting a tumultuous mental state. Anyone who has lived a less than perfect life, either mentally or physically, could acknowledge the fact that our bodies and our minds are connected.
In a biblical move, I would like to suggest that the word ‘soul’ or even ‘spirit’ could be inserted where previously I have said ‘mind.’ In the Greek of the New Testament, there is certainly distinction between the two (think Mark 12:30- you will love the Lord your God with your mind and your soul, etc.), but they are often used in concert.
Our very souls are connected to our bodies. You can’t have one without the other. We get a sense of this when a person who experiences damage to their brain enters a coma from which they do not wake up. Physicians would obviously use much more technical and secular terminology; however, once someone’s consciousness leaves, there is nothing to be done for their body. Similarly, there are not disembodied souls wandering around the earth. We as human beings are the union of body and soul.
This is why the concept of joy has always been baffling to me. In Christian circles, joy is often described as distinct from happiness. Many Christians would tell you that joy abides even in the worst of circumstances. Joy for the Christian, then, is not just happiness but rather a levity of the soul derived from the hope of Jesus Christ.
Of course, that sounds lovely. I certainly want to be a person who is joyful even when I’m despondent after a 15-hour day. I definitely want to abide hope in my soul that lightens my load even when it feels like the weight of the world is on my shoulders.
But is this really true? Everything I’ve discussed about the relationship between the human body and soul would suggest that it isn’t! When our souls are troubled, our bodies are as well. When our bodies are weak, our souls deflate.
Until yesterday, joy was always a foreign idea to me. Yesterday, I heard a verse read that I had likely heard read hundreds of times in the past. I’m also willing to bet you’ve heard it a lot too. But I also bet you’ve never read it in context!
Nehemiah was the appointed governor of Israel after the return of the Israelites from the Babylonian exile. In the beginning of chapter 8, he asks a priest named Ezra to read the Law of Moses for the people as they are beginning to rebuild the previously destroyed Jerusalem. As the Law is read to them, the people begin to weep.
You have to understand all that these people had been through. 70 years prior, their entire city had been destroyed. Many that lived in Jerusalem were captured and sent to live in Babylon, a foreign place where they did not speak the language or know the land. Although the Babylonian captivity gives rise to some of the most inspired stories of the Old Testament (think Daniel, and Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego!), it was not a good time to be a Jew.
Finally, when the Babylonians were defeated, the Hebrew people were allowed to return home. I can’t even begin to imagine the kind of mixed emotions involved with that process. 70 years is enough time for a generation to have passed away. This means that most if not all of those who were returning had never before lived in Jerusalem. They only knew of it from stories and from traditions passed down by parents and grandparents. To return to see the great City of God in absolute shambles must have been overwhelming.
And so they weep. These people, who had finally been allowed to return home, cried biter tears of sorrow and bewilderment.
And then Nehemiah drops some of the best wisdom that has ever been uttered. Tasked with leading this thoroughly confused people to rebuild the temple and the surrounding city, Nehemiah uses his platform to calm and guide them. “Have a party!” Nehemiah says. “Celebrate this day with God. Don’t cry, because the joy of the Lord is your strength.”
The joy of the Lord is your strength.
My strength is not dependent on the state of my body. My strength is not even dependent on the state of my own soul. My strength is dependent upon the joy of the Lord, the God who both celebrates and mourns alongside his people.
See, this God whose joy is our strength is the very same God who loved us enough to become one of us in order to save us from ourselves. This God whose joy is our strength knows totally and exactly how it feels to be victorious and free, but this God whose joy is our strength also knows fully and intimately what it means to be bitter, confused, and bereft.
This God whose joy is our strength is the very one who will inhabit a manger in a few weeks. His mom and dad will watch him lovingly under the stars as the spring air fills his tiny lungs for the first time, giving him the breath to coo and giggle and cry. His many visitors will look into his big, brown eyes and smile, hoping he will return the gesture.
He will grow and learn and experience what it means to be truly human. And then he will come to do what none of us could. Somehow, I don’t think the joy of the Lord was anyone’s strength in the darkness of Good Friday. However, Sunday was the beginning of a new era of joy that will never end.
This Advent, may you rediscover joy as I have. May you remember that tiny, giggling, cooing, crying baby Jesus is also the God whose joy is our strength, and may you abide in that joy even on the darkest of days.
Joy to the world! The Lord is come.
Let earth receive her King.
Let every heart
Prepare Him room
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and nature sing
And heaven and heaven and nature sing!
Grace and peace,