WHY DO THE BEST AND THE WORST THINGS SEEM TO HAPPEN AT THE SAME TIME?
Joy and woe are woven fine, A clothing for the soul divine said William Blake.
This couplet is believable, though the reality is usually messier and more painful than the rhythm of poetry affords – something David would identify with.
Israel’s greatest king was destined for glory from the moment the itinerant judge, Samuel pre-emptively and hastily anointed him as future king of Israel in place of the impetuous Saul and his dark impulses. Once Samuel had performed the rite, this specific goal would have lodged in his mind. I am going to be King. David may have been a man after God’s heart, but, like many gifted people, there was concealed ambition. Samuel would have boosted David’s serotonin levels no end and it is unlikely David ended another day of his life without thinking what lay in store.
Not that the journey to the top was seamless. Many of the later years were spent on the run from a homicidal Saul, who could smell the scent of destiny round David. There were spells of utter despair, as the net closed around him, only for escape routes to present themselves, but in ways that left David feeling undignified and morally compromised.
Throughout, David’s friendship with Saul’s son, Jonathan sustained him. This unusually close relationship was David’s solace. When Saul was deposed, one way or another, the two of them could form an unbeatable alliance based on deep mutual respect and affection. In other circumstances, the son of the king would pose a mortal threat to any monarchical pretender; their friendship was proof of God’s blessing and purpose. There was a sense of inexorability about the next ruling elite.
And then, at the very moment David inherits the crown, he learns not just of Saul’s death, but of Jonathan’s too. If this was clothing for David’s soul divine, he must have felt like tearing it in pieces. The moment of accession is overshadowed by his powerful and heartfelt lament, not just for Jonathan, but for the man who tried to kill him:
Saul and Jonathan, beloved and lovely…
How the mighty have fallen
In the midst of the battle
How could David possibly cope with becoming King and losing his dearest friend in the course of a messenger’s hurried and anxious report?
At one point or another in life, we can sympathise with him: the wedding reception attended by the couple about to separate; the birth and stillbirth of women attending the same ante-natal class; the remission from cancer of one friend in the week another dies. It is impossible to find words adequate to the occasion without seeming trite or dismissive, but the frequency with which these co-incidences happen demand our attention.
When mixed, it is the power of sadness which is most observable. We are more likely to weep than rejoice; however finely woven Blake found these emotions. Our joy is numbed; anaesthetised. By contrast, we do not find the joy so readily overwhelming the sadness. But it must have its place.
Our age is re-discovering binary categories of winners and losers which corrode our moral sentiment. The beatitudes, which promise rich recompense to those who lose out, are overturned by a public discourse which celebrates the successful at the expense of those who are not. Pastoral theology and practice, by contrast, eschew crude categories like this. Real human beings experience happiness and pain in a jumble which owes little to their mastery of life.
If we assess Good Friday on the brutal evidence of the day, Jesus was a loser. If we look at Easter Sunday, he is a winner. The absurdity of this distinction shows the inadequacy of binary ways of looking at life. We cannot separate joy and woe because they are finely woven in the definitive event of history, on Calvary’s sultry, blood-congealed hill. When success and failure; victory and defeat present themselves in the same moment, they do not mock us so much as offer a window into the soul of the Easter event.
On Easter Sunday, the emotional response of the disciples was chaotic: how can grief turn to joy so summarily? Is the pain instantly nullified by the breathing presence of the once dead? Is the joy impaired by the memory of Jesus suffering on the cross? The disciples probably asked themselves these unspoken questions.
The gift of joy in the midst of sadness is God’s offer of hope to the distressed; the presence of grief in life’s celebrations is his strange, sometimes necessary gift to those tempted to think they have won because they deserved it more
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