My husband and I had the honor of officiating our eldest son’s wedding this summer. After the ceremony, all one hundred guests gathered under an enormous tent in our front yard where tables laden with hundreds of sunflowers and cosmos, heaps of perfectly prepared barbecue, and ice cold root beers awaited them. We toasted, feasted, remembered, laughed, and cried.
Several weeks later, our little town celebrated its 300th birthday. After a parade and town-wide picnic, the festivities culminated with fireworks. For the finale, all of the pyrotechnics were gold. After the last one burst open, a magical shimmering curtain of glitter hung in the air and drifted in slow motion down to earth. The satisfied oohs and aahs transitioned to hearty applause before we all packed up our folding chairs and headed home.
At the conclusions of both events we felt gloriously full—spiritually and physically. And that was the point. Celebrations of this kind are so much more than a valid diversion from work or an excuse to eat too much; they invite us to enter into God’s joy by remembering his faithfulness and goodness.
The impulse to celebrate as a means to remember God’s provision has ancient roots. After sparing his chosen people from imminent destruction, God specifically instructed them to commemorate his faithfulness through an annual celebration (i.e. Exodus 12:14-20). Whether it’s Purim (marking their deliverance from Haman), Passover (celebrating their deliverance from slavery), or Chanukah (celebrating the rededication of the temple), the Jewish people have created unique festive traditions shaped around God’s commands to remember.
Despite his continued faithfulness, our memories tend to be short term. We so easily get distracted and swallowed up by both the incidental and enormous challenges of life that we forget the many times God has dropped manna or parted the waters for us. When the bank account dips below minimum, the mechanic’s bill exceeds our weekly paycheck, or the pathology report comes back positive, it feels more natural to shake our clenched fists at God than to organize a party.
Which is why celebrations are so crucial to our spiritual life. The very act of celebrating anchors us in a deeper story—one that precedes any current hardship or pain. God’s narrative goes back to the Garden when He formed us from the dust and called us into loving relationship with each other and with Him. It continued when Jesus became flesh and assumed all of our sin and brokenness so that we could enjoy fellowship with the Trinity. It will culminate in, yes, a celebration—the wedding feast of Christ with his bride, the church.
I don’t think it’s coincidental that weddings and other celebratory meals figure prominently in God’s great story. Whether it’s a wedding or a worship service, celebrations are a time of looking back with gratitude and looking forward in hope. The intentionality and faith-filled anticipation that are imbedded in such gatherings tether us to God and cut through our fear, doubt, and cynicism.
I asked my friend William, who lives and works in Monrovia, Liberia—the epicenter of the Ebola crisis—if celebrations and joy are at all on his screen amidst the current hardship. He responded,
In these dark moments, remembering God and his joy gives us strength. During this time, so many people are finding their way to Him. Every church is packed. The worship celebrations have been magnificent. Even when it feels impossible, He can give us a joy that passes understanding because it’s anchored in faith.
People like William who live with the awareness of their need for God know how to celebrate—both inside and outside the walls of the church. If you’ve ever had the opportunity to worship with people from developing nations (or with anyone who has overcome serious obstacles, such as addictions), you know it’s like nothing you have ever experienced in the mainstream American church. You won’t see anyone sitting back with a cup of designer coffee while scrolling through their handheld device. It’s like Super Bowl Sunday, the World Series, the World Cup and name your favorite recording artist in concert rolled into one—every Sunday. Because these believers understand their dependence upon God, they worship Him with complete abandon.
As William will readily admit, our troubles don’t magically vanish when we celebrate. Ebola did not cease to exist after their Sunday services. When the smoke drifted off from the fireworks in our sleepy little town, we went back to the heated debates about tax increases. However, purposeful celebrations will temporarily lift our burdens, connect us to each other and God, and hopefully, in the long term, help to transform us into grateful men and women.
The Irish band Rend Collective created an exuberant video which extols the importance of celebrating. In it, band leader Gareth Gilkeson explains, “Joy is a spiritual discipline. We as a people are much more inclined toward negativity and cynicism. We don’t find it easy or natural to pursue joy. And that’s why God in his word actually command us to celebrate. We come by a gospel worth celebrating before a celebrating king. We need to get down to the serious business of joy. We must wrestle for our blessing. We must fight for our joy.”
Thankfully, we don’t need to wait for a family wedding or tercentennial birthday to celebrate. A new job, a sixth anniversary, or the restoration of a seemingly lost relationship are all reason enough to gather together with friends, remember God’s goodness, and enter into his profound and life-changing joy.