The following piece is by Fr James Martin SJ and included a picture by Jean Keaton called “Teach me thy way O Lord” which can be purchased from her website: www.keatonprints.com
Today’s Gospel: The joyful wedding feast (Mt. 9:14-17)
The most enjoyable part of writing “Between Heaven and Mirth,” which looked at the spirituality of joy, humor and laughter, was talking to Scripture scholars about Jesus of Nazareth–because there were always surprises in store. One day I was speaking to Richard Clifford, S.J., professor of Old Testament at Boston College, about the various instances of humor and laughter in the Old Testament.
At the end of our lengthy conversation, I decided to ask him about the Jesus and joy. (He’s an Old Testament scholar but a Jesuit priest, after all, so the New Testament was fair game.) Father Clifford surprised me by pointing to the passage in the Gospel of Luke where Jesus is criticized by some of the Pharisees for not conforming to their expectations. I had never thought of it as an indication of Jesus’s high spirits, but there it was. “For John the Baptist has come eating no bread and drinking no wine, and you say, ‘He has a demon,’” says Jesus, repeating the Pharisees’s critique of John. Then Jesus turns to how they perceive him: “The Son of Man has come eating and drinking, and you say, ‘Look, a glutton and a drunkard.’”
“Jesus and his disciples,” said Father Clifford, “are being criticized for living it up!”
In his joy, Jesus did not conform to some of the Pharisaical expectations. We shouldn’t think of all of the Pharisees as hypocrites, but here they are clearly struggling with a God who is moving beyond the boundaries of their own understanding of the divine. In today’s Gospel, it’s John’s disciples who are struggling to understand Jesus. “Why do your disciples not fast?,” they ask him. Jesus responds by using the image of the wedding feast. “Can the wedding guests mourn as long as the groom is with them?
Notice the image of God’s reign that Jesus offers: the wedding feast, probably one of the most joyful and lively and fun images you can imagine. Been to a wedding reception lately? They are joyful affairs, filled with the promise of new beginnings, with the gratitude of family and friends, with happiness over running into old friends, with jokes, with laughter and with dancing. Many are raucous affairs. Men and women in first-century Palestine would have been just as happy for the blessings of a wedding day as we are (though they probably would have expressed their joy without a DJ).
Jesus is telling us something about the centrality of joy in the Christian life. Yes, life is a “vale of tears” at times, as one prayer has it, and yes, Jesus suffered greatly. And yes, Jesus often speaks of somber things like what awaits sinners at the Last Judgment. But the images he uses most often (the father rejoicing over the return of his wayward son, the woman finding her coin, the shepherd finding his sheep, the birds of the air, the lilies of the field) are joyful ones. The Christian life, ultimately, leads to joy, just as Jesus’s life did.
Jesus is also telling us something about our expectations of God. If the Pharisees didn’t like John’s words and deeds, they liked Jesus’s words and deeds even less. Because what John and Jesus showed them about God was didn’t conform to what they were used to. Even John the Baptist’s disciples seemed confused about what Jesus was doing. But Jesus showed them, and show us, that God is bigger than our expectations. When we put God in a box of our making, not only does God come out of the box, God shows us how ridiculous the box was in the first place.
One of the boxes into which we put Jesus is the box of sadness. Most of our paintings and mosaics and sculptures and frescoes of Jesus show him as an unsmiling man, even dour, and a large percentage of them portray him undergoing his Passion. But while suffering was an important part of his earthly life, it’s not the only part. How strange it is that in the history of Christian art there are so few images of Jesus smiling or laughing. But much of Jesus’s ministry was joyful: spending time friends and family, healing the sick, participating in meals with his disciples, and enjoying the company of children. And the Resurrection? That’s pure joy.
The reign of God is joyful. Just like at a wedding feast–the feast you were invited to on the day of your baptism.