December 21, 2011 / Praxis
In this Advent reflection, Tom Ryan wonders whether we really want what Advent prepares us for.
November 26, 2007
A dear friend, despite her poverty, does all she possibly can to give three children an upbringing full of dignity and hope.
A group of friends dances for nearly five hours at an engagement party.
Word Made Flesh staff enjoy a fabulous dinner together with great food and wine during the last night of the 2004 Staff Retreat in San Diego.
Spontaneous singing and dancing break out among excluded youth when they hear their favorite songs on the radio.
A young couple living on the streets uses part of the very little money they have to cook dinner and share it with my wife and me.
A blue dragonfly flies over open sewers leading out of a slum community.
Excluded and forgotten Brazilian kids welcome strangers and share their smiles as they play with my daughter Cora.
These are lessons I’m learning, showing me how important it is for us to remain open to gladness, joy, and celebration, especially in our solidarity with the poor and within contexts of injustice, oppression, and exclusion. Certainly, lament is important and has its proper place in our Christian spirituality, especially considering that, as Pastor Ray Mayhew says, “the Psalms of lament are given to us by God to allow us to legitimize our bewilderment and disappointment with God [… highlighting the] theological conflict between our present experience of suffering and God’s character and promises.”1 We are free to express our disappointment, outrage, and pain about reality and concerning God Himself.
Mayhew continues, “Friendship with God means that even though we know He will never let us down, we sometimes feel He has let us down, and—amazingly!—He encourages us to tell Him so and lament our grief and loss.”2
When it’s time for grief and lament, we should not miss or neglect the opportunity to express them. But we should also not miss or neglect opportunities in life to deliberately and actively embrace gladness, joy, and celebration. Yet oftentimes (and I am guilty of this) we tend to—either consciously or unconsciously—focus on the fragments—the incompleteness—and not necessarily the wholeness and beauty that we are, that we are a part of, that we contribute to, and that surrounds us. Whole spirituality is taking responsibility, courage, and initiative to see and celebrate the good, constructive, and positive—the creative and life-giving work of the Spirit who moves freely in our world. It is consciously deciding to value what we have and can give instead of what we are lacking and what we can’t give; to recognize the inherent worth in the decision of the will to live; to value our own beauty and that of others; to see the small and daily miracles we easily overlook; to feel the simple solidarity and treasure of being with others and sharing life’s joys and celebrations.
We have hope that God is going to make everything new, that His Kingdom will be completely established when Jesus comes again, even as there are signs of it today. Certainly there is so much in our lives and world that can take our joy away or keep us from wanting to celebrate. Therefore, this is not a naïve call to an empty happiness we experience through the distractions of consumerism, endless entertainment, and activity. After all, it’s not as if we can honestly ignore the suffering of millions of our brothers and sisters. I also understand that I’m writing these words with my laptop and in my apartment and from a certain privileged perspective. I accept this tension and at times feel the contradiction.
Nevertheless, I’ve witnessed and experienced this will to live, this ability to appreciate life and to experience innate joy and spontaneous gladness despite great suffering and poverty. Even the ability to help us recall simple joys that we have perhaps forgotten in our adult world is something to consider regaining. This is how my daughter Cora teaches me: her joy at seeing the moon; stopping to pick up sticks, leaves, or flowers while we are walking (though it drives me crazy at times—and that’s exactly my point!); her capacity for gladness and play just hours after having surgery.
We speak frequently of how the poor have become our mentors and teachers. Yet I think we still have much to learn from them regarding gladness and celebration of life. Jon Sobrino writes, “What we call primordial saintliness is the will to live and to survive amid great suffering, the decision and effort that it requires, the unlimited creativity, the strength, the constancy, defying innumerable problems and obstacles. Even in the midst of catastrophe and daily hardship, the poor and the victims—especially the women and their children—put into practice and fulfill with distinction God’s call to live, and to give life to others.”3
Sobrino is saying that, despite enormous odds and tragedy, there is a will to live and to give life, to not take this life for granted, to appreciate life despite exclusion and severe hardships. I think of, for example, the way many of the youth and kids we work with love music and are always ready to dance and sing when they hear their favorite song. These are simple and beautiful examples of a desire to enjoy life and to celebrate despite the circumstances of life.
We were created for life, to give life and to enjoy the presence of our Creator because our God is a God of life, not death.4 In Jesus we see a God who is not foreign to celebrating, enjoying meals, opening Himself up to others, dialoguing, weeping, rejoicing—in summary, living and drinking in life in all its dimensions. In fact, Jesus loved the table fellowship so much, and all that it implies emotionally, socially, and spiritually, that He was accused of being a glutton and a drunkard!5 Our intimacy with Jesus should have implications for our daily walk with Him. Our spirituality, or the spirit by which we live, should reflect our desire to follow our Master, to understand and make the same choices as the man from Galilee, Jesus of Nazareth.6
“I have come so that they might have life, and have it to the full.”7 I think this verse has usually been interpreted as referring solely to the fullness of life we experience after death. However, I believe it’s more inclusive than that. The verses preceding Jesus’ statement of abundant life tell of a present situation: the sheep hearing the shepherd’s voice and following Him while they are alive! Jesus came announcing the Kingdom of God’s eruption into history and inviting humanity to participate in it. Jesus laid down His life for us so that we could live like Him on earth and experience and celebrate the fruits of life now, as well as enjoy the bliss of being in God’s presence for all eternity.
The Scriptures also teach us that one of the defining characteristics of the Kingdom of God is joy.8 God’s Kingdom is not defined by an oppressive religious moral code but by living an unfathomable relationship with the Triune God, the Creator of the cosmos.9 Think of the jubilant celebration hosted by a father inspired by the return of the lost son. The table fellowship, the sacrament of the Eucharist, and the indescribable wedding party after Christ returns are invitations to celebrate a new orientation to life both now and in the future.10 And note that those who are at this wedding supper are those who have lived through the great tribulations. Enjoying the presence and intimacy with Jesus through our brothers and sisters, taking time to celebrate with food, drink, music, dancing—all these, and much more, are beautiful and basic expressions of what it means to take part in the life of humanity, especially in Latin America. Henri Nouwen calls this “being bread and wine to each other”11—in other words, taking the splendid opportunity of being the presence of Jesus to each other and the world.
In The Prophet, Kahlil Gibran, the Lebanese poet and philosopher, writes, “The deeper that sorrow carves into your being, the more joy you can contain. Is not the cup that holds your wine the very cup that was burned in the potter’s oven?”12
If this is true, I believe it suggests something important for us who minister among friends who experience terrible injustice, suffering, and sorrow that reaches into our lives as well. Our capacity for joy and gladness and our ability to celebrate life should match our experience of suffering. Jesus says something similar: “Your pain will turn into joy.”13 Because we trust in a God who is Emmanuel, who walks with us, and who lived and suffered life and drank it to the last dregs, we can therefore say along with the psalmist, “Weeping may last for the night/But a shout of joy comes in the morning.”14
1. Ray Mayhew, qtd. in Brent Anderson, “Faith and Suffering,” The Cry: The Advocacy Journal of Word Made Flesh vol. 12, no. 2 (Summer 2006), p. 18. See also Ray Mayhew, “The Lament,” The Deep End, http://www.raymayhewonline.com.
3. See Jon Sobrino, Where Is God? (Maryknoll: Orbis Books, 2004), pp. 73-74, 93-94.
4. Genesis 1:26-28
5. Luke 7:34
6. 1 John 2:6
7. John 10:10
8. Romans 14:17
9. Psalm 100
10. Revelation 19:7-9
11. Henri Nouwen, Bread for the Journey: A Daybook of Wisdom and Faith (New York: HarperCollins, 1997), October 1.
12. Kahlil Gibran, The Prophet (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 1923), p. 29.
13. John 16:20
14. Psalm 30:5
© 2007 by Word Made Flesh. Printed with permission. www.wordmadeflesh.com
Walter Forcatto lives in Buenos Aires, Argentina, with his wife, Adriana, and children, Cora and Amani. They have served with the non-profit organization Word Made Flesh since 2002, first establishing a ministry among children on the streets in Lima, Peru, and now building relationships with youth on the streets of Buenos Aires.