I like words, their origin (or etymology if you prefer) and the ways in words affect people – and people affect words. Such as the word “peruse” which people understand to mean “glance over, skim,” etc. Yet originally the word means (and I would argue still does) to read completely and in exacting detail. Recently Merriam-Webster’s (M-W) “Word of the Day” revealed another interesting word whose meaning has done an about face: egregious. Today it means to be conspicuous or flagrant – and almost always in a negative sense. Yet the origin of the word from the Latin ex-“out of” and greg- “flock” to give us egregius “illustrious” or in a more modern sense, “outstanding.” Somewhere in the late 16th century the word was increasingly used in an ironic sense, until that usage became it every day meaning.
With less linguistic foundation, I wonder about the word “happy” and “joy.” I think we have a tendency to “smush” synonyms together so that they lose their distinctive and nuanced meanings. For example, it seems to me that we refer to the “joy of salvation.” I can’t recall having ever heard the “happiness of salvation.” M-W defines happiness as “a state of well-being and contentment” or “a pleasurable or satisfying experience.” Hmmm…. Not exactly the expression I would use in reflecting upon salvation, but then again, maybe that’s just me. “Joy” is defined as “the emotion evoked by well-being, success, or good fortune or by the prospect of possessing what one desires.” Not too theological (or eschatological) but at least it seems to have a bit more “uumph” in it – especially if St. Augustine is correct in offering our deepest desire is to rest in God.
As I said I am on weak linguistic grounds, but I think instinctively sense “joy” is a deeper, richer, more substantive word than “happiness.” It is like the 10 lepers in this Thanksgiving Day gospel, Luke 17:11-19; I am sure all are happy simply at being told “Go show yourselves to the priests.” That was what they were to do if they were cleansed from their disease. The priest would inspect them, declare them clean and they could return to their families. Who wouldn’t be happy.
Here on this Thanksgiving Day families will gather, celebrate, argue, hug, speak their gratitude, eat, over-eat, watch football, wash dishes, and carry on all the family traditions which mark the day. But every family has its own “lepers” who are on the outside – not even in a negative sense, just apart from family. Maybe it is as simple as distance that keeps them apart, perhaps illness, aging, old feuds, lingering resentment, work, service, or any host of reasons. But what if those barriers were lifted, removed, or erased? “As they were going they were cleansed.” Who wouldn’t be happy. And I suspect “happy” wouldn’t begin to describe their emotion.
But “one of them, realizing he had been healed, returned, glorifying God in a loud voice; and he fell at the feet of Jesus and thanked him.” There is something deeper going on in this one. If you will allow be to say the other nine were “happy” then we can apply “joy” to the distinctive thing at play here. The 10th leper is happy he will be able to rejoin his family, but he goes outside his own response and seeks the origin, the source, of his “happiness” and discovers the deeper “joy” of salvation: “Stand up and go; your faith has saved you.”
Sometimes happiness it on the road to joy; sometimes not. Sometimes we have to make choices that will not leave us or others “content.” It may well leave us bereft, anxious, or second-guessing ourselves. But it might just be the path to joy.
The 10th leper was egregious – he was apart from the flock. He perused all that was unfolding. He took a different road. He found joy.
May your travels this day bring you happiness and joy – joy that abides and endures for the whole journey in this life and the next.