Psalm 47 in The Message begins:
“Applause, everyone. Bravo, bravissimo!
Shout God-songs at the top of your lungs!”
Isn’t that a delightful way to open a Psalm of Celebration? Perhaps the language of more formal translations has caused us to miss something of the excitement and laughter in scripture, but it’s always been there. Indeed, while the whole Bible acknowledges that there is much pain and brokenness in the world, it also pulsates with the news that there is a loving, wise and mighty God who is going to great lengths to redeem the world to himself.
When God himself enters the world 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)
As Jesus 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 David “dancing with all his might before the Lord” (2 Sam 6:14).
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 a good way. Family celebrations were patterned and traditional, with much warmth and the inclusion of relatives whom we only ever saw at Christmas. Other celebrations, however, 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 byproducts 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!
Our reasons for Celebrating may vary widely. Today, I am celebrating a freedom (of sorts) after being ‘locked down’ for 106 days, as my city has tried to manage its COVID-19 crisis. Finally, I am allowed to freely visit some family and friends in their homes. Non-essential retail shopping is now ‘open’– including my local barber, whom I have been encouraged to visit. It’s a day of celebration– of a certain kind.
Some celebrations carry greater weight than others. Today 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.