Rejoice! Rejoice! Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel!
In Old Testament and New, rejoicing is not just a response; it’s a command. It’s not a feeling; it’s a practice. “Sing and rejoice, O daughter Zion! For lo, I will come and dwell in your midst, says the Lord,” decrees the prophet Zechariah (Zechariah 2:10). “Rejoice in hope,” directs the apostle Paul (Romans 12:12). We might think rejoicing erupts after something wonderful has taken place, but in the Bible, rejoicing is something God prescribes: this is what you shall do.
Sometimes the details are surprisingly specified. For example, check out these instructions regarding the Feast of Jubilees: “On the first day you shall take the fruit of majestic trees, branches of palm trees, boughs of leafy trees, and willows of the brook; and you shall rejoice before the Lord your God for seven days” (Leviticus 23:40). Not: If you feel like it, rejoice for a whole week! Not: if things are going well for you, seven days of rejoicing is an appropriate response. Nope. You shall. Sev’n whole days, not one in sev’n, I will praise thee, as George Herbert has us sing. Seven is the number of completeness. Maybe we are supposed to rejoice always, not turn off our rejoicing when the week is over. Paul thinks so: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice” (Philippians 4:4).
Perhaps Rejoice! is a command because we are too often like the older brother in Jesus’ parable who would rather stand in the backyard and sulk than join in the party for his wayward younger brother who found his way home. In a world where people say, “Second place is just first place for losers,” our default position is to resent rather than rejoice. How come she got the promotion? Why did he get into a better school? Why do they get all the breaks? Why did he get a fatted calf slaughtered and the best robe and a ring, and here I am, slaving away? We have to be told: Rejoice!
[The Revs. Amy Richter and Joe Pagano serve the Episcopal Church as appointed missionaries in Grahamstown, South Africa. To learn more about the Episcopal Volunteers in Mission program, click here.]
There’s something about rejoicing that changes us. Changes everything. Makes us see what is really there, really here. The father says to the elder brother, “You are always with me, and all that I have is yours” (Luke 15:31). Get it? It’s only by the practice of rejoicing that we see how much we have already been given. The father continues, “But we had to celebrate and rejoice, because this brother of yours was dead and has come to life; he was lost and has been found” (Luke 15:32).
“Rejoice with those who rejoice” (Romans 12:15).
But there’s another reason to rejoice now, and that’s in anticipation of what is coming, which in Jesus is never just in the future. We can rejoice now—we must—because in Jesus, God’s future is already breaking in on us. As Jürgen Moltmann wrote, “The risen Christ does not come just to the dead, so as to raise them and communicate to them his eternal life; he draws all things into his future, so that they may become new and participate in the feast of God’s eternal Joy.” Rejoice! Rejoice! (now) Emmanuel shall come to thee, O Israel. God’s future punctures our present in Christ.
As we write, it’s evening in South Africa. A woman is in the kitchen preparing supper, and we can hear her singing: He is the savior of my life, He is the way, the truth, the life, He’s the alpha and omega, the beginning and the end, I found everything in him.
She may be keeping a commandment. But singing is enacted joy. It rejoices and makes joyful at the same time, and her song is making us rejoice too. “Rejoice always, pray without ceasing, give thanks in all circumstances; for this is the will of God in Christ Jesus for you” (1 Thessalonians 5:16-18).