Mary responded, “Oh, how my soul praises the Lord. How my spirit rejoices in God my Savior! For he took notice of his lowly servant girl, and from now on all generations will call me blessed. For the Mighty One is holy, and he has done great things for me. He shows mercy from generation to generation to all who fear him. His mighty arm has done tremendous things! He has scattered the proud and haughty ones. He has brought down princes from their thrones and exalted the humble. He has filled the hungry with good things and sends the rich away with empty hands. He has helped his servant Israel and remembered to be merciful. For he made this promise to our ancestors, to Abraham and his children forever.”
Celebration is an overflow of freedom. I remember a story Maya Angelou told about plantation owners not allowing slaves to laugh. It was a rule, and slaves caught laughing were punished. That’s fascinating, isn’t it? Why would someone do such a thing like ban laughing? I don’t really know, but I wonder if it has to do with fear. It’s hard to laugh when you’re fearful. Laughter reveals a kind of freedom that has nothing to do with circumstances.
This story helped me understand why I’ve never been good at celebrating in any form – laughing, dancing, singing, any of it. Most of my life, I’ve been enslaved to a God I never quite trusted, and if I’m honest, I never quite liked. This is not the God of Advent, of course, but the God of my religious upbringing.
This God was angry. Worse than that, he was grumpy. He seemed to delight in sending people to hell – a real, fiery, eternal one. I can’t tell you how many hours of sleep I lost wondering if I had done enough to avoid eternal torment. I remember the fear being heavy and almost tangible, applying a force to my heart that brought tears to my eyes. I would ask – no, beg – God to forgive the sins of my past. I really wasn’t that concerned about heaven. I couldn’t stop thinking about hell. I think I would have been fine spending eternity anywhere, so long as it wasn’t “down there.”
This toxic image of God is probably best summarized by something I heard my a relative of my mine say one time, “When all is said and done, I hope I’ve done enough to get into heaven.”
Hope you’ve done enough…?? What??
This man had been a Christian for decades. Decades. He loved God. He was a leader in the church. And I remember thinking if he can’t be sure about his life after this life, I might as well throw my Bible and my faith in the trash.
Fortunately, that God-image no longer dominates my life. But even today, after years of working to heal my image of God, celebration remains a struggle. I become uneasy when I sense Christians enjoying life a little too much.
I also become envious, though. Because I know celebration is an overflow of freedom. And, in many ways, I’m a long way from freedom. That angry God of my upbringing doesn’t easily release the grip of fear.
Celebration, you see, begins in the heart and mind. It is a deep conviction and trust in God’s goodness. It’s knowing that God is both with you and for you. Where you see Christians who take themselves too seriously, you can be almost sure their God is cheeks-blood-red-and-smoke-blowing-from-the-ears-angry and their minds are probably ravaged by fear.
There also exist Christians who have fun and enjoy life but remain enslaved, and I don’t want you to mistake a good time for a free life. You can laugh and dance and sing with shackles. That’s not celebration. That’s an idolatrous attachment to entertainment, more a narcotic to avoid pain than an overflow of trust in God.
Abraham Heschel says it like this,
“Celebration is an active state, an act of expressing…appreciation. To be entertained is a passive state–it is to receive pleasure afforded by an amusing act or a spectacle…Celebration is a confrontation, giving attention to the transcendent meaning of one’s actions.”
True celebration doesn’t deny pain and struggle and suffering. Light-hearted Christians who laugh and have fun without being connected to the pain and suffering around them are equally as toxic as Christians who assume all celebration is sin.
But when you can celebrate in the face of pain, this is the good life, the abundant life. This is the kind of celebration that can only come from a place of deep trust in God. When you can maintain a light-heartedness and hopefulness about your life despite immense loss, this is the kind of celebration that comes from knowing God is for you and everything is going to be okay.
Especially in light of the season, may we refuse to engage in celebrations that celebrate nothing. Let us not become intoxicated by material things. May we celebrate the substance of Christmas, Emmanuel, God with us.
How can you celebrate God’s goodness in your life today?
Father, I pray that you grow in me a spirit of joy. Remove any fear that exists in my mind. Remove any shame that remains in my heart. Amen!