A God who dances for joy

One of the most common misunderstandings about Christianity is that pleasure and enjoyment are not really allowed, and indeed that if Christians are seen to be enjoying themselves then they are being at least a bit naughty. I suppose it comes from the fact that God has given us Christians an important role to play in the world, warning people not to turn simple pleasure into selfishness, or even worse into the exploitation and manipulation of others! God also wants us to remind people that some of the most enjoyable things in life require more than a little hard work. As they say in the sporting world, “There’s no gain without pain.” Sometimes however, at various times in our Christian history, people have decided that the safest thing to do is to ban certain pleasurable things – plays, books, even singing and certainly dancing – on the grounds that they inevitably lead to corruption and vice.

 I suppose such kill joys might accept singing, provided it is suitably solemn and holy, but how they square their views with the idea in our 1st reading today, (Zephaniah 3:14-18) of singing that is combined with shouting and rejoicing I really do not know.  As for dancing. we hear at the end of the reading, not that we are allowed to dance but, rather more amazing, that God himself “will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.”  So if God can dance with shouts of joy, so can we.

At this point it is worth remembering that all these passages in the Old Testament that are addressed to “Jerusalem” or “Zion” or “Israel” must be understood as addressed to us as the Church. So we are not just hearing some exhortation to sing and dance and shout for joy addressed to a people back then, but listening to words that are meant for us now. And why must we celebrate like this?  Well precisely because God does, and, as we hear twice in the same reading God does this not at some safe distance but “in our midst” – which immediately points us forward to Christmas.

How sad it is when people think of God as some remote force far away. Of course God is utter stillness too – the still silent presence that never changes – but God has also chosen to be Creator and that means endless activity and movement and rejoicing, and God has chosen to bring this creative activity that is his presence right into our midst both in and through Jesus our brother and friend, and also in our own rejoicing, so that our singing and shouting for joy is always, if it is good, an experience of God as Holy Spirit welling up within us. Love and peace and joy then are never static things, they are always part of the adventure of life that is the gift of God to his people.

 Notice that John the Baptist in our Gospel (Luke 3;10-18) gives a slightly different twist to this activity of God, for not only does God baptise with the Holy Spirit but also with fire. Think then of God as fire, always dancing always moving, always changing. John goes on to use an image from the countryside of his time, that God is like someone winnowing wheat. I really need to demonstrate this because words hardly convey the activity that is meant by the word winnowing. Taking the great rake-like wooden implement and tossing the harvested wheat in the air so that the rubbish blows away and the more solid wheat-seed falls back ready to be made into flour.

St Augustine describes singing at the harvest as one of the great ways people respond to God. He even describes how the singing becomes ecstatic as it goes beyond words, and surely we can extend this to any singing or dancing that is a giving thanks in some way for some good thing that has happened or is happening to us.

But notice our 2nd reading, (Phil 4:4-7) probably written while Paul was in prison awaiting execution. Here, as in a number of other places, he tells us to “rejoice always” –  always in every situation – a much harder thing to do. To find God’s goodness and rejoice in it, not just when times are good but even when times are hard. God does not create a world that is always easy to live in, and this can seem a hard thing to accept, but without struggle and effort and even pain – in the harvest, in sport, and in life in general, love and joy are shallow words with no real meaning. God rejoices as he is born in poverty in a stable, and even as he dies on the cross. He is sad of course, but still he rejoices. For true joy, true love, is always sacrificial, never selfish, it is always active never passive which is why dancing is such a good way of expressing what God is really like. Rejoice, rejoice Emmanuel has come to us, O Israel.

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Rejoice with God in his love for us

Frances writes on this Sunday’s readings :- During this Advent time of preparation for the coming of the Christ child, we can easily misinterpret our bible readings as exhortations to action – things we must DO to prepare for Christmas. In fact, the Incarnate comes among us whether we recognise him or not, and all our febrile worries and activities can all too easily fall into the Pelagian trap that makes us think that we are in control of affairs, when in actual fact what we are preparing for and celebrating is entirely God’s gift. God is not one whose arm can be bent to our will and the Incarnation, the becoming human of Jesus the Son of God, is always about God’s will for us and not the other way round. God the Father is all powerful and loves his creation, and when he saw it fallen away from his will he acted to redeem it; what Leo the Great described as a “Bending down in pity, not a failure of power.” The Father has always intended us for glory, to share his life, and the Incarnation is not a desperate retrieval plan for something gone horribly out of control, but part of his master plan from the beginning, a sharing of his divinity with us through and in the person of the Son.

 

When therefore in our Gospel (Luke 3:10-18) we find the crowd asking John about the right manner of their behaviour, it is not principally a recipe for cleaning up their act that they are given, but a vision of the sharing which is the life of God in Trinity, what it is to be godlike. The actions called for are not primarily about morality but grace, the sharing and mutual adoration which is the Trinity in action. In this free distribution of clothing and food we meet the life of heaven. Our Jerusalem Bible translation does not quite capture the Greek in verse 12 where the tax collectors are advised to ‘exact no more than your rate’. Now the collection of taxes was farmed out throughout the Roman Empire to the highest bidders on the understanding that in addition to collecting the imperial revenues, they would take their cut in recognition for their labours. This often included the purchase of local thugs to enforce collection, and of course the tax officials could charge whatever they wanted in these circumstances and frequently became very rich, as Luke’s story of Zacchaeus suggests (Lk 19). The Greek actually says “Collect no more than you are appointed to do”, actually suggesting that they should not take any cut at all, but only what was previously arranged to be given to the Emperor’s treasury, a truly god-like act! Similarly, with the next verse, we know that troops supplemented their pay by intimidating the locals upon whom they were frequently billeted, and the bit mistranslated by the JB as ‘extortion’, is actually ‘false accusation’, meaning methods used by heavy handed troops to get the locals imprisoned and even executed and seize their property. All these things, expressions of inequality, and so un-god-like, are excluded by John as he prepares real hearers of his message for the coming of Christ. The distinction between grace and humanity in its fallen state is moreover pressed home by John’s comment that he is not worthy to untie the sandals of Jesus. As this was the job of the lowest of the household slaves, we can appreciate the point John is making, and his awareness of the gift bestowed. It is quite without comparison, grace in all its fullness.

 

Precisely because this is the situation, our reading from Paul to the Philippians (Phil 4:4-7) indicates the right attitude for all Christians to adopt. Not the unfortunate JB ‘be happy’, but rather as it says in Greek, “Kairete – Rejoice!” It is about God’s Kairos, his ‘time’. It speaks of an attitude of tolerance to everyone, something just as difficult for the citizens of pagan Philippi, with its myriad of gods and its Roman values and habits, as it is for us today; a reflection of divine toleration – what God puts up with from us all and what he does all the time. The letter goes on to encourage us not to be anxious (to worry) about anything, but rather to rest everything in God’s hands, and it is surely in the cultivation of this trust that we can ultimately live without fear, knowing we are always in his care and that that will not fail.

 

In the same vein, our reading from Zephaniah (3:14-18) calls the people of Jerusalem to rejoice as their death sentence has been repealed. Now Zephaniah was a prophet during the reign of Josiah, 640-604 BC. This reforming monarch succeeded Manasseh under whom religious practices had been allowed to slide and the worship of Yahweh declined. Israel saw this as the reason why they were being threatened by foreign invaders. With this in mind, Josiah instigated a series of religious reforms, record of which we have under the Deuteronomic historians and temple priests, and we must think of Zephaniah as a prophet who played his part in this reforming spirit. Once again we find that theme taken up by St Paul, that the Lord is among them. “You have no more evil to fear’. Such is the goodness and care of God towards his people that, far from any call that Israel (we) brush up our act), we are told that the Lord “Will exult with joy over you, he will renew you by his love; he will dance with shouts of joy for you as on a day of festival.” This then is what it means to held in God’s hands. This is the promise of Christmas which we are anticipating and awaiting, and we see precisely where we are and what we are in God’s presence.

Moments of joy with God

In the last few weeks two very ordinary people have shared with me moments when they have felt very close to God. Neither could fully describe the experience, but I think both would agree that these were moments of exultation, moments of great joy even in the midst of sadness. When such moments are described in the Bible, they are always described as moments when the Holy Spirit has come upon the people concerned in a powerful way; and we heard one such experience in our 1st Reading today. (Acts 10:25-48). “While Peter was still speaking, the Holy Spirit came down on all the listeners.. Jewish believer were all astonished… as they could hear them speaking strange languages and proclaiming the greatness of God.”

 Now, of course, this “speaking strange languages – speaking in tongues” as it is sometimes called, does not happen to everyone who experiences moments like these. The important point is that it can happen to anyone, not just to the great saints, and when it does happen, we should give thanks to God that he has given us such a moment, and then use it to help us to be better Christians. This, after all, is what all the gifts of the Holy Spirit are for; not for us to boast about as if we are especially holy, but to build up the church as a powerhouse of prayer and action, and to make each of us better at serving others in the name of Christ.

 You may note that I called such experiences, moments of joy; and those of you well-schooled in the teaching of the Church may have already said, “But joy is one of the fruits of the Holy Spirit?” And if you can remember your teaching, you can probably list them love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control.” But I wonder if anyone can tell me where they come from in the Bible? (Gal 5:22-23)

 Christian joy can take many forms. St Augustine describes such moments as something his local farm labourers felt, coming home after the harvest. He describes how they would sing together in a way that he called “jubilating”, where they simply sang together in a kind of ecstasy, just making music without words.  Quite a lot of us do that without realising it, humming a song when we’re feeling happy, without bothering with the words!

 Some people, me included, sometimes pray without words too, just speaking to God as if in a foreign language, because we run out of ordinary words to express how much we love God and want to praise him. This so-called “praying in tongues” can also be used in moments of great sadness, grief or pain,  when again we cannot find words to express to God what we’re feeling, and can only speak in a way that is beyond words; and for many this will simply be a sort of sighing with God. This is something St Paul describes in one of his most famous passages on prayer writing to the Romans (8:26-27) “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but the Spirit himself intercedes for us with sighs too deep for words. And he who searches the hearts of men knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”

But for many of us, although we may sometimes have deep and powerful experiences of the Holy Spirit working in us like this, joy is more likely to be a much quieter deep-seated feeling. This is surely what Jesus means in today’s Gospel (John 15:9-17) when he tells us that if we “remain in his love” then his “joy” will be in us, and our joy will be complete. The essence of this quieter experience of God is simply a deep seated knowledge, even in the midst of much sadness perhaps, that God loves us. This is the heart of what prayer is. This is certainly what Jesus is talking about, isn’t he? He says that we must love as he has loved us, and then he describes what this love is. It is him giving his life for us whom he calls “his friends”. St John describes this too in our 2nd Reading (1 John 4:67-10) when he speaks of the sacrifice that Jesus makes on the cross, “so that we could have life through him” Life! Not just living, as we all do, but eternal life, the life that defeats even sadness and death, a life that is to be a friend of God for ever.

I wonder if any of you have noticed that, during this Easter period, all Catholic priests are called upon by the Church to express this “joy” on behalf of you all every day as we say Mass? You will hear it just before we all say or sing “Holy holy”. The priest says “Therefore, overcome with paschal joy, every land every people, exults in your praise”

Pondering on these words the other day, I thought I should draw your attention to them. The Church is clearly not expecting us all to disappear into ecstatic utterances! No, surely the prayer is trying to help us, even to persuade us, to realise in our own hearts and lives just how much God loves us, and how much he has done for us, and how glorious is our destiny as friends of God. When we sing “Holy holy holy”, we are actually singing the song of the angels in heaven, as described in the last book of the Bible. (Rev 4:8) Every Mass is a foretaste of heaven! Every Mass links us with the glory of God, whether we feel it or not.  Listen again to the Prayer the priest said at the beginning of Mass today “Grant, almighty God, that we may celebrate with heartfelt devotion these days of joy, which we keep in honour of the risen Lord.”  

So, may God the Holy Spirit, working within us, help us to realise at least something of the wonder of a God who is everlasting goodness and love; and who calls us, not just to pass on that goodness and love to others, but to do so as his friends. Not servants of God, but Friends of God for ever!

Joy later and now

One of the criticisms often thrown at us Christians is that we are only in it so that we can get to heaven; that the joy we offer is only the joy after death, whilst all we can offer now is struggle and suffering. Now we all know that’s not true, that we Christians will always support anything that brings help to the suffering, anything that can improve the life of our fellow human beings. That’s why in our Gospel today (Matthew 11:2-11) when asked whether he is the Christ, the one bringing in the kingdom of God, Jesus replies by telling them to look at what he is doing – “the blind see.. the lame walk.. lepers are cleansed… the deaf hear…and the good news is proclaimed to the poor.”

So, yes, we do offer a promise of joy beyond death, a promise that our loved ones who have died are not lost in the darkness, but are drawn into the glory and light of God. But that promise of joy beyond suffering and death is also a challenge to us Christians to bring into this life as much of the joy of God as is possible. To us they are not alternatives : either joy now or joy after death, but two sides of the same coin. The joy that is promised, encourages and inspires us to make that joy present for people now, to help them to see the glory of God in small ways in their own lives now.

However we Christians are also realists. The Old Testament sometimes gives the impression that God will give everyone total joy now before we die. This is because when it was written the Jewish people did not have a belief in life with God beyond death. Christians always read and interpret the Old Testament through the teachings of Jesus, and so the beautiful passage from Isaiah that we have today (Isaiah 35:1-6.10) becomes a promise of help now, yes “Say to all faint hearts. Courage. Do not be afraid.”; but is also a promise, that what we receive now is nothing to what will happen when we meet God face to face : “They will come to Zion shouting for joy, everlasting joy on their faces.” (Zion is another word for Jerusalem, and both are used by us Christians as a way of talking about heaven – the City where God lives in everlasting light)

The realism is shown very clearly in our 2nd Reading (James 5:7-10) where we are told to “Be patient”.  This surely doesn’t mean that we should sit around vaguely waiting for God to do something. We are called to be like Jesus, to bring in the kingdom NOW, with our actions caring for others, and in our attitude to life – bringing God to others with a smiling face.

This chimes in with what Pope Francis has been saying and doing, doesn’t it? No wonder he’s been declared Person of the Year by Time Magazine! His latest piece of teaching is actually called “The Joy of the Gospel” (Evangelium Gaudii in Latin) where he reminds us that we’re each called, whatever our vocation, to bring the joy of the Gospel to all around us. The Pope challenges you and me to “appear as people who wish to share their joy, who point to a horizon of beauty, and who invite others to a delicious banquet. [For] it is not by proselytizing that the Church grows, but ‘by attraction’”, just as one is attracted to the light.”

Proselytizing means going on about the teaching of the Church, rather than living it out in joyful caring lives; and it is something we priests have to be very careful about. The temptation is, that because we have the privilege of “going on” about the Gospel up here at Mass, we do “go on” about it, rather than living it out in love and service to others. When therefore I hear of priests who say Mass and preach but hardly speak to, or make themselves available for, those who come to church, I find myself getting angry!

But we priests are sinners like everyone else, we are not perfect – another thing that Pope Francis has pointed out. He recently encouraged people to make their Confession, but he did this not by going  on about it, but just by telling them that this is what he does, every two weeks, and he often asks us to pray for him. So let me do the same for you. I will be going to Confession on Tuesday morning, and hope some of you will come to our Penitential Service onTuesday evening, or make your Confession at some time in preparation for Christmas. We all might think, as we do this, of the areas in which we have failed to bring God’s joy to the world. What more could we have done in one way or another to bring in God’s kingdom? In what way could we have been more generous to the poor and those in need or sorrow? How often have we shown a gloomy rather than a smiling face, have been moaners making others feel sad, rather than people who in simple ways bring a little bit of joy to others?