It is raining today – a thick, damp autumn drizzle that will try to keep the city folks from the farmer’s markets. Rain is settling the dust in the city and calming the rush of a long work week. We are all underneath the weight of it, all the living of us.
I am still alive today and the smell of thyme is filling my senses in our favorite neighborhood coffeeshop. I’m writing in the corner while a cozy crowd brunches Saturday morning into the afternoon. This is the rhythm of the weekend. We work all week so that we can wake up late for lazy brunch on a rainy Saturday. It’s a rhythm we wrote for ourselves and a rhythm we are resigned to keep like a metronome. Morning, work, night, sleep, busy, work, busy, weekend, play, rest, weekend. Repeat.
Consciously or subconsciously Christians have accepted the whole ethos of our joyless and business-minded culture. They believe that the only way to be taken “seriously” by the “serious” – that is, by modern man – is to be serious, and, therefore, to reduce to a symbolic “minimum” what in the past was so tremendously central in the life of the Church – the joy of the feast. – Alexander Schmemann, For the Life of the World (1963)
I really “get” what Alexander Schmemann is saying. Today is about the business-minded, serious, modern man with five and ten year plans. Weekends and scheduled holidays are available for joy and for feasting, unless you have stored up vacation time for something in between. Schmemann wrote “For the Life of the World,” in 1963 as a study guide for the National Student Christian Federation Conference in Athens, Ohio – several decades and states removed from my hipster life in Brooklyn in 2014. But, today is still about that same rhythm. I am resigned to the groove of that same calendar that tells us when to work, when to holiday, when to rest, and when to feast. I usually try to stand by the window…
In the weekday mornings, I join the coffee-perked rush on the Q train over the Manhattan Bridge.
In the weekday evenings, I join the long-faced rush on the Q train back over the same bridge in the opposite direction.
Schmemann’s book is about liturgy and the church calendar, but reading these chapters has felt a little like lighting a match. God keeps rhythm like a metronome. We hear it in the words at the close of the first day of Creation, “And there was evening and there was morning, the first day.” (Genesis 1). It keeps repeating, “There was evening and there was morning, the second day.” The third, fourth, fifth, sixth, and seventh follow with that same rhythm. There was evening and there was morning, like a metronome.
The Israelites were all about God’s metronome. They ordered their lives around celebrations that anticipated the coming of the promised Messiah. People traveled from all over – long, dusty, and dangerous travels – so that they could dip into the barrels of celebration wine and break the bread of provision around long tables of neighbors, strangers, and friends. They didn’t always do it right, sure. But it seems like everyone agreed that gathering was important. And not just gathering, but gathering to anticipate the promises of God – to remind one another of the ways He provided in the past and to point toward His provision in the future.
We gather to celebrate birthdays and holidays and those days that come standard, pre-typed on our calendars. But in these, often (maybe), we let our joy get contained inside the event. Thanksgiving is coming. We will anticipate the meal, the guests, the full bellies in the afternoon. We anticipate joy on that day of gathering, but it will pass. Work will find us again on Friday or Monday at 9 am and we will slide into the same rhythm.
Schmemann writes, “The modern world has relegated joy to the category of “fun” and “relaxation.” It is justified and permissible on our “time off”; it is a concession, a compromise. And Christians have come to believe all this, or rather they have ceased to believe that the feast, the joy have something to do precisely with the “serious problems” of life itself, may even be the Christian answer to them.”
Yes, Schmemann, I believe it is. Joy is the Christian answer to the “serious problems” of life itself. But it can’t be faked or smashed into a day that looks in on itself. Joy cannot get celebrated when it is about a birthday or about a national holiday or about vacation time. Joy is the answer to the serious problems of life because it is always looking to Christ – back to the work of the cross that looks forward to our hope of eternity. Joy is our anticipation of what we taste but cannot grasp on this side of heaven.
Joy is the rhythm of God’s metronome.
I am in the middle of these thoughts about joy and feasting. They are not finished but they begged to be written out when they still felt awkward and gangly. This past month, in the middle of a very “serious problem of life” God offered a unique grace that allowed me to step into the joy of two different weddings. Feasting is hard to do when you are mourning. Joy is hard to do when you are sad. Dancing is hard to do when you are weeping. Strong is hard to do when you are weak. It almost feels wrong to smile, to dance, to laugh, to sing, to joy. It almost feels dishonest and disrespectful to be anything but depressed. Death is a serious problem of life.
But, these two weddings were feasts of joy that looked back on God’s provision in Christ and forward to the promises of abundance here and in eternity. I didn’t know what to do as joy wrestled the sorrow and everything got tangled. I didn’t know how to do either one well.
But joy is the rhythm of God’s metronome.
Joy swallows up sorrow, in the end. Right now, they wrestle it out in my heart – fighting for thoughts and emotions and words. But, in the end joy swallows up sorrow and that is what feasting and gathering is all about, this rhythm with a different beat.
Thanks for your patience in reading these very unfinished thoughts, friends. Is it okay that they don’t make sense? That they mix metaphors and jump around like a scatterplot graph?