When I was young, I thought celebration was my spiritual gift. Life was a bouquet of color, each shade evoking a different response from my eager heart. I had an innocent joy, an ability to laugh at and celebrate the most mundane things. I suffered from blissful naïveté and didn't comprehend the complexities of life—the moody tones that prevent us from conjuring up true joy, sorrow, laughter, or fear because it makes us vulnerable, or it might hurt too much.
But maybe the young and innocent do understand a profound truth about celebration: that it is a vital piece of the rhythm of faith and life, that celebration strokes bold colors across the mundane, the hardship, the sin, and the sadness of life.
Have our lives become monotone? Have we, like G. K. Chesterton wrote, "sinned and grown old," losing our ability to love and think youthfully? Have we forgotten how to celebrate?
Taking It All In
In a culture where work is often overvalued, we don't know how to enact, or even define true Christian celebration. It costs money. It doesn't seem productive. We've got more important things to do. So too often we settle for a celebration phantom, a cheap imitation. Even in our best attempts, eating or drinking is the closest we get. While these things can—and should—be a piece of celebration, they barely scratch the surface of the robustness we can encounter in celebration.
Real celebration helps us experience the full color spectrum of life in Christ. Life without this joy is bland and gray. Our eyes are half-closed to the blaze around us. Celebration cultivates a rhythmic depth within us. Like a character in any good story, we come to know valleys and peaks, evil and good, brokenness and restoration.
Conversely, some people—and churches—live life in neon colors, a perpetual state of what they would call "celebration." But just like dwelling in grays, this extreme is monotone, too. How do we know the brilliance of the sunlight unless—at one point or another—we've emerged from utter darkness? At its core, celebration is accompanied by a profound sense of where we've been and where we're going.
For example, the power of Easter, the Resurrection, comes from the power of Good Friday, the Crucifixion. It's easy for us to breeze by Good Friday, though, isn't it? It's so ugly. So gruesome: our Savior dying, entering the blackness of our communal and individual sin as a crowd mocks and points.
But our hearts need Good Friday. If we don't dwell on the reality of the Cross, we cannot fully comprehend the wonder of Christ's victory over death and hell. Theologian Jeremy Begbie says that Easter doesn't negate Good Friday, but in fact, it affirms and strengthens the power of the Cross. The celebration we experience on Easter Sunday is infused with a richness because we know what the Crucifixion required and why we need Christ to destroy death and sin. Our hearts ache for his victory.
Retraining Our Eyes
Celebration is often deeper when we've witnessed blackness first, but of course, that doesn't mean we dwell in the darkness. First John 1:7 says, "But if we walk in the light, as he is in the light, we have fellowship with one another, and the blood of Jesus his Son cleanses us from all sin" (ESV). Coming into Christ's light of redemption should always bring us into the fellowship of the church. This is ultimately where the discipline of celebration should be lived out and modeled to its fullest.
Once we've joined with the rest of the body of Christ into the cosmic party of Jesus' victory over death, we find that anything can be cause for celebration: a conversation with a friend, sex with our spouse, a meal we've prepared for our family, milestones in life, a strong cup of coffee, the smell of our child's hair.
These are the bright splashes of color around us, but in order to notice them, our eyes have to be retrained. This is why celebration isn't necessarily a spiritual gift, like I once believed, but a spiritual discipline: It forces us to wake up, to know goodness and joy in life, and then to respond.
Celebration in the midst of heartache is hardest of all. We don't want it to feel inauthentic. Shutting off this emotive valve is an easier solution. But what's more authentic than shaky hands reached toward the sky, rejoicing over God's splendor when we fail to understand? Even during the bleak Good Fridays of our lives, there is always the promise of Easter dawn.