Shield the Joyous

Read: Isaiah 35

And the ransomed of the LORD shall return, and come to Zion with singing; everlasting joy shall be upon their heads; they shall obtain joy and gladness, and sorrow and sighing shall flee away (Isaiah 35:10, NRSV).

What a difference a few decades make.

I first encountered the phrase “shield the joyous” when I was in my early twenties. It was—and is—part of a traditional evening prayer from the Book of Common Prayer. Maybe you’ve prayed it yourself:

Keep watch, dear Lord, with those who work, or watch, or weep this night, and give your angels charge over those who sleep. Tend the sick, Lord Christ; give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.

When I first encountered the phrase, “shield the joyous,” it struck me as an odd kind of afterthought. It didn’t fit with the rest of the requests. After all, it makes sense to pray for the sick, the suffering, the weary, and the dying. But why would we want to pray for the joyous? Haven’t they already received the answer to their prayers?

Now, several decades later, that part of the prayer seems not just necessary, but urgent.

Having been around the block a few times, I’ve learned how rare and how precious joy is. I’m not talking about run of the mill happiness—though, goodness knows, we can be grateful for that. I’m talking about moments of incandescent delight. The kind that make us feel as if we have stumbled onto something holy—because we have.

A few drops of such joy in the ocean of a lifetime can make that life worth living. But if you have experienced it, you will know how hard it is to hold on to. What’s found is often lost. Because as the Jewish prayer book puts it, “It is a fearful thing to love what death can touch.”

The fragility of joy has brought many believers to their knees. It’s hard not to be bitter when joy slips through our fingers. What kind of a God would play those games?

Maybe the kind of God who would rather die than let death have the last word.

This is the God that the prophet Isaiah wants us to hold on to. The God who “will swallow up death forever” and “wipe away the tears from all faces” (Isaiah 25: 7-8). On that day, Isaiah reminds us, our joy will be everlasting (Isaiah 35:10).

It isn’t easy waiting for that day. But we can wait in hope, knowing that our present joy is a preview of coming attractions. Knowing that what’s lost will again be found.

In the meantime, I will continue to pray that God will “shield the joyous.”

Ponder: What helps you to choose hope over despair? What role does gratitude play?

Pray: Hang on to us when we do not have the strength to hang on to you, Lord. Help us to wait in hope. Then give rest to the weary, bless the dying, soothe the suffering, pity the afflicted, shield the joyous; and all for your love’s sake. Amen.