The bells begin tolling ten minutes before Mass at St. Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. One bell at first in a steady, rhythmic peal. Then a second bell rings in a higher voice, sounding in its own cadence. Soon a third bell joins the chorus, this one even higher and faster. Then the bass tones chime in, one after another and another. Ten bells in all, rolling over one another in waves. Reverberating through the walls onfthe church, bouncing off the floor, echoing from neighboring rooftops, vibrating in my head and chest, carrying me off to distance places, to the outward rushing edges of the universe.
The joy of the Lord is strong, like a torrential river. It is forceful, like storm waves breaking against a cliff. The joy of YHWH is the power which drives creation and expands the universe. It rushes forward, accelerating, bringing matter and life into being. Truly, “of the increase of His government there is no end.”
We humans cannot fathom the tumultuous, unstoppable joy of God. We tend to think of joy mildly, as happiness, or contentment, or even hope for the future. But there is a visceral reality to God’s joy. A few years ago, in His great kindness and eagerness to be known, He granted me a taste of this joy.
It was a Friday afternoon when I was working hard to get dinner ready for guests. The house needed cleaning. Dishes needed washing. There were vegetables waiting to be chopped, but I was tired with a headache coming on. Determined to do my work, I kept rushing through the house, asking the Lord for help, telling Him how tired I was. It was prayer of sorts, I suppose. But honestly, I was surprised when the Lord responded. He had something to say.
“Amy,” He said. “You can keep on running around in your own strength and you will finish your work. People will come, and go, and you will be left with a headache, as you so often are. Or, you could let Me be your strength.”
Intuitively I understood this was an invitation to lie down and rest. More than an invitation, in fact. How could I be so ungrateful and rude as to refuse help from the Almighty? So I lay down on my bed.
Much to my surprise, the Lord had more to say. “Amy, what is your strength?” He asked.
“The joy of the Lord is my strength,” I replied.
Immediately, I felt a rush of energy hit my gut, rise up through my heart and run out of my mouth in a gasp. “So this is joy,” I thought. I didn’t know joy could hurt! It was His joy I was feeling, so real that it was physical, not only emotional. It was more than I could contain. I thought I might break apart, but what a way to go!
All the while I felt the Lord standing nearby laughing. On the one hand, I knew He was holding back. If I could not stand that trickle of joy, how would I, how we will we react when we experience the fullness of His joy? Our Father does hold back in His wisdom, for a season, until all things are accomplished. But someday we will see Him as He is, and He is more eager for that day than we are.
That was the other reason the Lord was laughing. I could sense how happy He was to give someone a small foretaste of the joy set before us all, the joy that issues forth from His very Being. The joy that imagined us and fashioned us, the joy that made Jesus despise the cross, the joy that will carry us home and wipe away every tear. The joy before which the universe must expand and make more room for Him to fill.
Hearing the bells of St. Stephen’s carried me back to that day when I felt, for an instant, the endless, raucous, rolling, creative joy of our God.