the duty of delight*

Ah, Easter. With Boston’s highs in the low 40s all week we will declare it springtime anyway; eat silly amounts of chocolate fertility symbols; and rediscover that magical time when overinvested liturgical types go around reminding everyone that Easter is not a day but a season of fifty days – then forget all about Eastertide by day fifteen.

Of course they have a point. Even a lot of evangelicals these days put so much effort into Lent: Ash Wednesday, the fasting, Lenten devotional booklets of all sorts, then the reenactment of the Holy Week drama. It is a marathon – a good, edifying, strengthening marathon – of piety. We excuse ourselves from the effort of celebration now that we’ve finished the hard part. The only thing we know how to celebrate for weeks at a time is the World Cup or maybe the Olympics, and we only muster the energy for that every four years – with a good couple of months’ buffer after the exhaustion of Lent.

wpid-wp-1428428218809.jpegBut Lent is supposed to be a season of preparation, so what is it preparing us for? One day of pastel dresses and ham and potatoes? Relief that we’ve taken care of that religious stuff? Business as usual?

We need a better theology of celebration. Once upon a time I was shocked to read this passage in Deuteronomy 14:
“22 Set apart a tithe of all the yield of your seed that is brought in yearly from the field. 23 In the presence of the Lord your God, in the place that he will choose as a dwelling for his name, you shall eat the tithe of your grain, your wine, and your oil, as well as the firstlings of your herd and flock, so that you may learn to fear the Lord your God always. 24 But if, when the Lord your God has blessed you, the distance is so great that you are unable to transport it, because the place where the Lord your God will choose to set his name is too far away from you, 25 then you may turn it into money. With the money secure in hand, go to the place that the Lord your God will choose; 26 spend the money for whatever you wish—oxen, sheep, wine, strong drink, or whatever you desire. And you shall eat there in the presence of the Lord your God, you and your household rejoicing together. 27 As for the Levites resident in your towns, do not neglect them, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you.

28 Every third year you shall bring out the full tithe of your produce for that year, and store it within your towns; 29 the Levites, because they have no allotment or inheritance with you, as well as the resident aliens, the orphans, and the widows in your towns, may come and eat their fill so that the Lord your God may bless you in all the work that you undertake.”

Who has ever even considered spending a tenth of their salary on strong drink for a pilgrimage-party nearly every year? Maybe a few times in your life you’ll spend that much on a wedding (whole ‘nother post) or really special vacation. But there it is, kind of overshadowing the “provide for the priests and the poor” bit: a commandment to the Israelites to take a portion of their harvest, not to save and scrimp and dither about spending wisely, but to celebrate extravagantly. This is not a passage on all things in moderation. It’s about a cycle of fasting (storing provisions for the poor) and feasting (oxen and rejoicing). Neither is complete without the other.

The circles I run in tend to be pretty big on “fasting from yourself”. There are the wild-eyed “Radical” evangelical Shane Claiborne types, the remember-your-sin borderline guilty types, the social gospel types, the conspiracy-theorist anti-corporation homesteader types. I love all of these people dearly, identify with all of them at times, have (literally) preached the fasting message against selfishness and consumerism from Tennessee to New York. But fasting doesn’t have to be the dour, self-righteous thing it turns into. Because it turns into a comparison thing, a guilty thing, a never-enough thing.

How often, too, have I heard Philippians 4 preached – “Rejoice in the Lord always; again, I will say, rejoice!” – in a tone that manages to be vaguely threatening? Something along the lines of, “If you’re not joyful, you should probably check in with the Lord to see if your relationship is really as OK as you think it is… just saying…” The excitement  that that exclamation point is trying to convey (because it practically jumps off the page in Greek) turns into this bizarre guilt trip encouraging everyone to hide all their negative feelings next time they come to church.

But Paul didn’t mean for this to be a hyperspiritualized litmus test of faith any more than Deuteronomy tells the nation of Israel to only spend their tithe-pilgrimage-money on really holy stuff. I think God commands God’s people to celebrate because we are so prone to forget that religion is not just about self-denial. And because, to be honest, it is a bit of a burden to celebrate really well (the baking! the family!). But the even bigger point about the whole cycle of fasting and feasting is this: as the literal and figurative seasons of life turn around us, God provides enough for everyone if we would only accept our duties to receive and our duties to give. This world, properly seen, is a world of abundance and grace and rain that falls on the just and the unjust. There is much to be thankful for even in the fasting times; and in the times of feasting, an overwhelming bounty of thanks to be given. The feast does not betray the fast; only to snub the feast, to refuse to share and rejoice in the lavishness, would be to betray the spirit of the fast. Denying yourself does not end in reflecting on how you can never do enough for the poor or whatever; it culminates in the dawn when Jesus has done it, the absurd hope we have that even death cannot put an end to the great gifts of a God who multiplies loaves, forgives sins, places the lonely in families, who never runs out and isn’t afraid and woke us up again this morning.

When we skip the outrageous-grace-party half of the cycle, we accidentally wind up like the disciples, pinching pennies and disapproving of wasted perfume. But when we embrace it, we live into a new world – proclaiming that we are sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see, the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come.

Nate is sending me a new classical music piece to listen to every day, and we he is building and planting a garden as I finish up a lot of writing this month. Other ideas for how to celebrate?

* with apologies to Dorothy Day and Fr. Greg Boyle.

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