September 25, 2009

Cornucopia / Cynthia Dewes

An ode to joy: Anytime is a good time to celebrate

Cynthia DewesBy this time of year, the jack-o’-lanterns are out and the bowl with wrapped candy stands at the ready. Halloween is coming soon, and the kids have their costumes and trick-or-treat routes planned. The seasonal celebration is ready to begin.

Of course, the year contains other seasonal events: Christmas, Easter, Thanksgiving. From pre-historic times, the seasons have offered people the perfect opportunity to have fun while marking an important natural occasion, such as mid-winter hope for changes in weather, the advent of spring and the time for harvesting crops.

With the arrival of Christianity, these celebrations began to center on holy days (holidays) of the Church calendar. Again, these were Christmas and Easter plus saints’ feasts and the recognition of special religious events, such as Pentecost or the Ascension. Often, they utilized the times of pagan festivals to present religious events.

Why do people dream up ways to party like this? Since it has been done since the beginning of time, it must satisfy an inherent need in us humans. Personally, I think the reason is that we feel a natural desire to be joyful. Just being alive can be a good reason to celebrate, but if the harvest is plentiful, and Christ has died and risen from the dead in order to save us, that’s even better!

Even the Puritans, as dour as we seem to think they were, appreciated this need. Thus, we have Thanksgiving. Although they believed in a Great Spirit, the Indians present at that first feast must have been a bit mystified. Such a display of thanks for sustenance was probably not on their usual agenda. But the Christian idea that joy is always accompanied by gratitude was probably not lost on them.

We celebrate the cute new baby with his or her christening into our faith. We celebrate engagements, marriages, graduations, the awarding of honors in school or clubs, and retirements from active work into a new phase of life. Even a funeral celebration is joyful because we know the dear one has passed into an even more wonderful phase of life than retirement.

Joyful hope is indeed a Christian imperative, unlike some other religions. That’s because God has promised us the ultimate joy, eternal life, and given us gifts of grace and free will to attain it. Everything depends upon our use of free will as opposed to the determination of fate.

Predestination, despite what some ostensibly Christian Churches preach, is not a Christian idea.

Some people may think that celebrating wealth or power or other worldly desires will give them joy. But making such choices always entails costly baggage. Money and power bring responsibilities to use them, not for personal aggrandizement, but wisely in the service of others. In the end, true joy comes only from the expression of love. Because we’re made in God’s image, love must drive our motivations and our actions. Selfish love won’t cut it.

Joy is uncomplicated, actually. It doesn’t cost money or pollute the environment, and we don’t need special tools to produce it. Joy appears when we celebrate faith together in community, or when we celebrate God alone in prayer.

It is present when we see the good in others, and when we stay alert to the ridiculous. We celebrate it in nature, laughter and beauty. I think author and entertainer Garrison Keillor produces an ode to joy rather succinctly when he says of the humble celebration of life: “Stay well, do good work and keep in touch.”

(Cynthia Dewes, a member of St. Paul the Apostle Parish in Greencastle, is a regular columnist for The Criterion.)

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