"The cultures we grew up in may or may not teach us to celebrate well. The reasons for Christian celebration are many— all rooted in the gospel of our salvation."
Have you ever noticed God celebrating? In the bible we read several accounts indication God’s delight in the events of his creation. When God himself enters the world in Jesus Christ, the angel announces, “I bring you good news of great joy for all the people. Today in the town of David a Saviour has been born to you; he is the Messiah, the Lord.” And then choirs of angels burst forth in song, “Glory to God in the highest heaven, and on earth peace to those on whom his favour rests.” (Luke 2:10-14)
At Jesus’ baptism, God the Father voices his pleasure in his son, ““You are my Son, whom I love; with you I am well pleased.” (Luke 3:22) Again, while Jesus is in prayer with his disciples atop the mountain, the proud Father says from heaven, ““This is my Son, whom I love. Listen to him!” (Mark 9:7) Evidently, within God the Father there is joy expressed in celebrating the Son.
Jesus also intended this kind of joy to be shared with his disciples. As he prayed shortly before his crucifixion, he prayed to his Father for his disciples, “I am coming to you now, but I say these things while I am still in the world, so that they may have the full measure of my joy within them” (John 17:13). When Jesus departed this earth and ascended to heaven, his disciples, “…worshiped him and returned to Jerusalem with great joy. And they stayed continually at the temple, praising God” (Luke 24:52-53).
The news of a loving God who is redeeming the world is news worth celebrating, which is why we read in the Bible of people laughing and singing and dancing! (eg Ps 30:11; 33:3; 95:1; Isa 44:23; Jer 31:11-14) But strangely Christians are not always known for their joy. For some of us our reluctance to celebrate God and his goodness has probably been shaped by a tradition of ‘sensible’ behaviour modelled by a sanctimonious church leadership. In these settings, the kinds of lively celebration that might have been described in the bible have been viewed as self-indulgent or, at best, frivolous— “seriousness is close to godliness.” We quickly forget the celebrations of the angels over one sinner who repents (Luke 15:7,10).
Celebration is also culture-bound. We all grew up in families, in traditions, and communities with their own patterns and norms for celebration. The Anglo-Australian culture I grew up in was well practiced at celebrating, but not always in an extravagant way. Family celebrations were patterned and traditional, with much warmth and the inclusion of relatives whom we only ever saw at Christmas. However, other, more extravagant, celebrations, relied heavily on alcohol to ‘get the party going’— leading to lots of noise but little meaningful relationship. Lots of noise was usually followed by a very quiet hazy headache the next morning. The cultures we grew up in may or may not teach us to celebrate well.
The reasons for Christian celebration are many— all rooted in the gospel of our salvation. And celebrating these is good for us! To begin, it combats the tendency many of us have to take ourselves too seriously. Celebration helps us put things in perspective, to laugh at ourselves, and remember that the Good News is exactly that – good news. Celebration is a way of declaring the truth about our world: that even though there is pain, injustice, suffering, in the end these things aren’t the truest things. God, and his love for us in the world, are deeper realities.
I wonder if we remember that joy is evidence of the inner working of God— part of the fruit of the Holy Spirit (Gal 5:22). God’s work in our lives is rightfully expressed with joy, delight, dancing, a maybe even fist-pumping exultation. Conversely, a dour and grumpy demeanour would seem to deny any evidence of the Spirit’s work. The Psalms of celebration we find in the Bible are making this very point. Lament is not the end of the story. Instead, very many Psalms call to us: “…let all who take refuge in you be glad;let them ever sing for joy.” (Psalm 5:11)
Liberty and energy are the by products of celebration which often overflow into many of the other activities and practices of life. Joyful celebration is contagious and continues on to touch other lives as well. A life shaped faithfully by the story of the Bible will include regular practices of celebration; not just as a way of letting off steam, but as a way of declaring to the world [and reminding ourselves] of the truth of the gospel. So, this month– working on a different exercise each week– we aim to learn the joyous art of celebrating well – and pass it on!
Week One Exercise
Our reasons for celebrating may vary widely. Some celebrations carry greater weight than others. Celebrating today’s sunshine feels good, but perhaps not the same as celebrating the declaration of peace at the end of a war. Celebrating my child’s birth sure beats celebrating my own birthday, which just feels like a reminder of my advancing years.
Celebrating my Saviour’s birth feels much more significant than my team winning a game. Those celebrations of greater significance sometimes warrant some thoughtful reflection, rather than simply firing up some ‘whoops’ and high fives. Sometimes Western Christians aren’t very good at stopping and celebrating.
But the Israelites did this intentionally and often, with a series of feasts built into their annual calendar: Passover (celebrating God’s deliverance from Egypt), Tabernacles (celebrating God’s provision in the wilderness), Purim (celebrating God’s protection in exile), to name but a few. Each occasion was marked not only by Godward gratitude but also by communal gathering, feasting and gratitude.
This weekend, plan a celebration with family and/or friends. Whether it’s a birthday, an anniversary, a new job, an old job, or even just the end of the week— purposefully delight yourselves in an aspect of God’s goodness to you. The key is to name and articulate exactly what it is that you are celebrating. Then, with purpose, hit the pause button and practice savouring the moment with others.
Week Two Exercise
Celebrations in the bible are always communal events. Everyone is invited and everyone gets included, from the greatest to the least. Even that most basic of celebrations— the Sabbath— required that all members of the Jewish household, whether slave or free, whether travelling sojourner or family member, cease work and enjoy the goodness of God-initiated rest.
This week, plan another celebration, as you did last week, but this time make sure you include some people who would ordinarily be overlooked or ‘forgotten’. Perhaps you will invite some of the fringe people at your church. Perhaps you will include some from a different demographic or cultural group: take special notice of the single, the widowed, the awkward and the less popular.
Note: I suggest that you do not try explain your guest list to your company— just enjoy the fruits of diversity!
Week Three Exercise
True celebration isn’t just about laughing, eating and dancing. We are free to do all of those things because something incredible has happened: God‘s grace has touched our lives. And yet, true celebration delights in active faith and obedience to God.
Without these, our celebrating carries a hollow sound. Set aside some times this week to prayerfully give thanks to God for his work in your life; for those situations where your faith has been put into practice, when you have been enabled to obey God— even at personal cost or through a challenging circumstances.
The fact that you are still ‘standing’ — your spiritual perseverance– deserves thanksgiving. Perhaps your faith has had to endure the challenges of spiritual isolation, of “online church”, of being kept apart through the pandemic. And yet, by the grace of God, we have persevered through this trial.
We are grateful to God. Many have learned to obey God in the big ticket items, but are there areas of the ordinary fabric of your daily living where you notice ‘fresh green shoots’ of obedience? Celebrate these wins with God in grateful prayer.
Week Four Exercises
Characteristic of Israel’s annual cycle of celebration was the remembering of key events with food and stories. Passover, Pentecost and Purim were all celebratory festivals, remembering respectively: God’s salvation in the exodus; harvest and the giving of the Torah at Sinai; and, God’s rescue during the exile.
The eating of the meal was accompanied with the re-telling of stories and the reading of relevant scripture. This week, think of some ways in which God has provided goodness, salvation or rescue in the life of your community. Is there anything in particular that lends itself to a pre-meditated festival celebration? The anniversary of a sick friend who became well? The arrival of a new friend? The completion of unit of work? The salvation testimony of someone in your church community? Christmas in July?
Share your idea with close friends and family. Start planning a festival in remembrance of one of those things. Discover the anticipation of an event where a close group can get together around a specific occasion to celebrate God‘s goodness and each other.