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We so often lead lives forgetful that our God is very shocking. Amidst all our jelly piety and devouring busyness, we have a Lord who steps in and commands us such things as, “Thou shalt bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after, for oxen, or for sheep, or for wine, or for strong drink, or for whatsoever thy soul desireth: and thou shalt eat there before the LORD thy God, and thou shalt rejoice, thou, and thine household” (Deut. 14:26). Such unthriftiness. Such waste. Such gluttony. Such winebibbing. Such is a command of our holy God.
For some reason, foreign to our modern ears, God tells us that celebration is central to pleasing Him; it is central to leading a good life. Modern American life has no time for serious celebrations as did life in centuries past. We’ve got work to do; projects and deadlines press us. And yet for all our industrial-strength pragmatism, few if any truly important things get accomplished. We have forgotten that celebration isn’t just an option; it’s a call to full Christian living.
Celebration is worshiping God with our bodies, with the material creation He has set up around us. Celebrating—whether in feasts, ceremonies, holidays, formal worship, or lovemaking—are all part of obeying God’s command to “love the LORD your God with all your heart, with all your soul, and with all your strength” (Deut. 6:5; Mk. 12:30). We are to show our love for God not just with one portion of our being, the spiritual aspect; we are to love God with our whole body, heart and strength and legs and lips.
Complaint is the flag of ingratitude, and it waves at the center of unbelieving hearts—”although they knew God, they did not glorify Him as God, nor were thankful” (Rom. 1:25). Yet by grace, God’s redemption and creation ought to keep us in a perpetual state of thanks which bursts out in celebration at every opportunity.
Celebrating in Feasting
Throughout Scripture and later history, feasting stands as the central expression of celebration. Through Isaiah, God promised a messianic future in which He would “wipe away tears from all faces” (Is. 25:8; Rev. 21:4), and He depicts this redemption not in terms of intellectual satisfaction or quiet piety but in terms of an extravagant feast: “And in this mountain the LORD of hosts will make for all people a feast of choice pieces, a feast of wines on the lees, of fat things full of marrow, of well-refined wines on the lees” (Is. 25:6)—choice pieces, well-refined wines, and fat things!—all the blessings which anemic moderns say we shouldn’t have. Redemption doesn’t appear to be a low-cal, cholesterol-free affair.
In addition to redemption, the creation itself calls us to thankfulness. Ancient Greek paganism of the Platonic variety has always despised the created order, seeing matter as a debilitating prison, something to be escaped. But God’s creative work has given the material creation a high place—”God saw everything that He had made, and indeed it was very good” (Gen 1:31). The apostle Paul tells us “every creature of God is good” (1 Tim. 4:4). Creation is not to be despised. It is a gift of divine art—wheated prairies, royal roses, steep giraffes, cool breezes, etched cliffs, loyal dogs, and tall corn; but also indoor plumbing, plastic toothbrushes, zippers, sourdough bread, Merlot wine, Italian sauces, tri-tip steak, and marinated mushrooms—”nothing is to be refused if it is received with thanksgiving” (1 Tim. 4:4).
To see how far away we are from ancient and medieval notions of celebration, consider what it would take to hold three, week-long celebrations a year as in ancient Israel. On top of that, imagine attending several weddings during the year each of which took a week. Such serious celebrating has molded most eras before our own. Or what would even a three-day feast look like? We moderns wouldn’t know where to start. Yet even if we are to try to win back some commitment to celebration, it has to become something we pursue seriously. It won’t happen just when we get free time. It has to become a meditation and a discipline, because the crowd is pressing us in the opposite direction.
We can at least start to feast with single meals. But even that will require a concerted pursuit of good cooking and delightful tastes. God has surrounded us with so many amazing tastes, and yet we Americans are barely scratching the surface. The Anglo streak in the American heritage has certainly put a tight squeeze on the breadth of our palates. American food is really so bland and tame we don’t even recognize it anymore. And we pass on our picky eating to the next generation. Pure criminality. But even the English know that for good food you have to leave the country. They like France, but the entire world awaits us. We have much to learn from the feastings of Asia and the Latin countries, especially that land of feasts—Italy.
Part of learning to celebrate includes learning how to splurge and not be so tightly utilitarian. Our culture is so wicked in its neglect of savings and slavery to plastic credit that we, with some right, run the other direction. But if your house is in order, it’s time to learn how to splurge at times. Beauty isn’t cheap, and neither are artistic meals and good wines. It may not be every week, but we need to learn to splurge with a pure conscience before God. If He has blessed us, then don’t we slight Him if we trade that blessing for Top Ramen and boxed wine? There is a time to “bestow that money for whatsoever thy soul lusteth after.” Christ Himself was not one to submit to the false piety behind much tightwad thinking common to evangelicalism. When the woman poured “an alabaster flask of very costly oil” on His head, the immature disciples complained, “`it might have been sold for more than three hundred pence, and have been given to the poor. And they murmured against her.’ And Jesus said, `Let her alone; why trouble ye her? she hath wrought a good work on me. For ye have the poor with you always, and whensoever ye will ye may do them good: but me ye have not always'” (Mk. 14:5_7). Let her alone. These are words of liberation.
Celebrating in Lovemaking
What more divine gift of celebration do we have than lovemaking? Even those married couples who can’t afford to splurge on grand meals and fine wine can feast on each other—”Let him kiss me with the kisses of his mouth: for thy love is better than wine” (Song 1:2). Holy Scripture even describes the delight of lovemaking in terms of a feast: “How fair and how pleasant art thou, O love, for delights! This thy stature is like to a palm tree, and thy breasts to clusters of grapes. I said, I will go up to the palm tree, I will take hold of the boughs thereof: now also thy breasts shall be as clusters of the vine, and the smell of thy nose like apples; And the roof of thy mouth like the best wine for my beloved” (Song 7:6-9).
Yet notice how nonsexual we are in our living. We run from the cold, impersonal sex of our surrounding culture only to act as if lovemaking were some shameful secret. The joy of sexuality doesn’t permeate our lives in the way it did in earlier eras. As much as pragmatism characterizes modern life, a living, warm sexuality characterized much medieval living. It was an important category of life, sometimes distorted, but always present. At their best, they knew that God had made them lovemaking creatures, and such passion and natural affection expressed itself in a warm comfortableness with things sexual. That “Puritan” poet Milton described this comfortable sexuality between Adam and Eve.
. . . . and with eyes
of conjugal attraction unreprov’d,
And meek surrender, half-embracing lean’d
On our first Father, half her swelling Breast
Naked met his under the flowing Gold
Of her loose tresses hid: he in delight
Both of her Beauty and submissive Charms
Smil’d with superior Love, as Jupiter
On Juno smiles, when he impregns the Clouds
That shed May flowers; and press’d her Matron lip
With kisses pure: aside the Devil turn’d
For envy. . . . (Paradise Lost, IV, 492-503)
Modernity has not only turned us into shameful animals copulating with strangers, but Christians, who should be the best lovers, the most sexual, are quite stiff and on feverish guard lest anyone actually “commit” a holy kiss. This is a sign of our spiritual immaturity. A more mature Christian culture could honor public etiquette, knowing that lovemaking is a private but not a secret thing, while still leading lives blossoming with celebration of the amazing gifts of sexuality.
But that sort of life has to start with love in the privacy of our marriage beds. We must first pursue celebration there. It ought not merely be a place of satisfying natural urges but a place for delighting in the mysterious beauty of those drives. Why did God delight to entrance us with smooth skin, soft breasts, firm muscles, entangled legs, and slow kisses? There are deep mysteries here, and we love meditating on them in person. Just think, we could be monks of love, devoted to a lifetime of meditation on the realities behind such commands as—”Let thy fountain be blessed: and rejoice with the wife of thy youth. Let her be as the loving hind and pleasant roe; let her breasts satisfy thee at all times; and be thou ravished always with her love” (Prov. 5:18,19).
Like feasts and holidays, celebration in lovemaking is about remembering. It is a love of history, a couple’s history of good times, of positive personal knowledge shared by no others, of refuge from a crazy world. Adulterers despise this sort of history, as do slaves of one night stands and bitter Christian marriages. Mature Christians love tradition, knowing that their sweet history is the only possible haven for the best lovemaking.
Living a Whole Life
Feasting and lovemaking are only two examples of celebration; many others abound, but these two are central. It is our besetting sin to forget God’s work for us. How often do we see miserable Christians wasting their half-lives in bitterness, their heads buried firmly in melancholic marriages or soulless busyness, almost enjoying their narrow nitpicking, molding insignificant faults into eternal weapons. “Stand up. Grow up,” you want to say. “Life is too short!” and “You have forgotten all the important things in life.” Celebration, like good stories, put things back in perspective. It reminds us of the important things.
So what is it to lead a whole life? How can younger persons live now so that they can look back when they are seventy or eighty and say in all maturity, whether rich or poor, “I have lived well.” Most of us, I’m afraid, will look back with decades of regrets, decades of waste, splintered lives. At that age we may finally “have time” to think about the good life, but it will be far too late.
The wisest man in the world taught us that “there is nothing better for a man, than that he should eat and drink, and that he should make his soul enjoy good in his labour. This also I saw, that it was from the hand of God” (Eccl. 2:24). Nothing better. Nothing better. Eat, drink, and enjoy the fruit of your labor. “Make your soul enjoy” celebration—feasting on food and love. But doesn’t this neglect purist doctrine, social injustice, and more time at the office? Yes, it certainly does.