Surprised by Joy

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A commenter wrote to me with a question her daughter asked on hearing about my post on Father Rain, "But doesn't he know it's a sacrifice?" You'll recall that in that post I related what a joyful experience the Mass was when celebrated by an African priest, Fr. Okoth.

Yes, I do know it is a sacrifice. But I also know, it is primarily the "celebration" of a Sacrifice made for me, not by me. The Mass celebrates the giving of a gift, the gift given by God the Father of His only Son that I should have life ďand have it more abundantly." Isn't that a pretty good reason to be joyful?

Think about this; if you are given a great gift by, say, your father at Christmas, something you could never afford to buy for yourself, for instance, a new Jeep (for me) or a 3 carat diamond ring (for you ladies), what would your reaction be? Might you not react by jumping up and down, screaming almost in spite of yourself, even with lots of people looking on, in joy expressing gratitude to the giver? Wouldn't you say things like, "Oh, thank you, how generous you are to me, what a wonderful father you are to me? How lucky I am to have you for a father, you are always so thoughtful." Or, would you walk away to sulk in the corner, put on a prune face, act all gloomy and sad and not even thank your father? What would he think of that kind of reaction to his beautiful gift?

This is something we all can easily understand and I think our worship of God is no different. At Mass, we celebrate God's gift of His Son to us as "a holy and living sacrifice." In Galatians, Paul writes that the fruits of the Spirit are, love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness and self-control. I don't see depression and sadness on this list of the gifts we all receive at baptism and confirmation. We express these gifts in our lives naturally at all times, but especially in worship.

Regarding worship, the Catechism has the following to say about the Sabbath. "Sunday, the 'Lord's Day', is the principle day for the celebration of the Eucharist because it is the day of the Resurrection. It is the pre-eminent day of the liturgical assembly, the day of the Christian family, and the day of joy and rest from work." I also find it interesting, in looking up the word "celebration" in the Catechism, to find this notation: "See words to which celebration refers, above all Liturgy." How many celebrations would we show up to week after week that we weren't, after all, really interested in attending because we didnít find them joyful. How many would we attend week after week if we never expected to have a personal meeting with the host so that we could share his joy in the celebration. At Mass, weíre going to meet our Lord, to share time with Him, to share in the celebration of Heaven, the greatest celebration of all. I think that calls for at least a bit of joy on our part.

I think the question, "But doesn't he understand itís a sacrifice?" evidences a misunderstanding of the meaning of joy. Joy doesn't mean that we act silly, nor does it mean that we are trivializing the experience of the Mass. The Catechism states (#1387) regarding the Eucharist: "To prepare for worthy reception of this sacrament, the faithful should observe the fast required of their Church. Bodily demeanor (gestures, clothing) ought to convey the respect, solemnity, and joy of this moment when Christ becomes our guest." Even when we are solemn and reverential, we are still joyful, one condition does not rule out the other. We can, after all, be dignified and still be joyful. We are, after all, experiencing a foretaste of the eternal joy we will know when our time on earth has ended.

The Apostle also understands the importance of joy. In Philippians he writes:

Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice. Let your reasonableness be known to everyone. The Lord is at hand; do not be anxious about anything, but in everything by prayer and supplication with thanksgiving let your requests be made known to God. And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus. (ESV)

Paul emphasizes that he wants us to be joyful in the Lord always. He doesnít say rejoice in the Lord always, except when youíre at Mass, he says always. The insistence on joy is found, in fact, throughout the Bible. In Ecclesiastes, of all places, we find the Preacher writing: For to the one who pleases him God has given wisdom and knowledge and joy, but to the sinner he has given the business of gathering and collecting, only to give to one who pleases God. In Psalm 132 we see, Her priests I will clothe with salvation, and her saints will shout for joy. The call to joy is actually found everywhere in Scripture.

Fr. Okoth grew up in a poor village in Kenya and was only able to go to school because he was sponsored by his Mutter Dora, a Swiss lady, a widow, who, through her monthly sponsorship, paid for the cost of his education. In fact, at considerable sacrifice, she continued to sponsor him while he was in seminary, after he turned 18. She is still alive, 95 years old, and when he went to visit her he learned that she paid for sponsoring him by selling things she sewed at the local market. She gave him almost everything she had so he could be a priest. Fr. Okoth knows what it means to receive a gift given at great sacrifice, and he knows the joy that comes naturally with both the giving and the receiving of such a gift. All of life is, for him, a gift. Sometimes it makes him so joyful he wants to dance, even on the altar.


A further comment on Fr. Rain in response to Ronald...

I know that Mass is a celebration, but it is also and most preeminently, the representation of the Sacrifice of Calvary. We are mystically brought into the presence of that event, yes, that very same event. We are present at His dying and His offering Himself to the Father (though the Body we receive is the resurrected Christ). I hardly think this is an occasion for dancing, jumping and waving our hands around. Celebrating can and should be done with dignity in this case.

There are occasions when we "celebrate" certain events, i.e. weddings, graduations, etc. The events themselves are ritualistic and soaked in tradition. It isn't until after the event is over that we let our hair down and "dance".

I am a Charismatic Catholic, so "dancing in the Lord" is not foreign to me. This being said, I find it highly distracting and inappropriate for this kind of behavior to be going on at the Cross, which is exactly where we are during the Holy Sacrifice of the Mass. I may dance before the Lord in my private worship, but when I enter into the corporate worship of the Church, I enter into something much greater than my own feelings and emotions or personal relationship with the Lord.

Yes, I am joyful in my heart during the Liturgly, but I am so fervently praying in union with the prayers of the priest who is offering this Sacrifice In Persona Christi for the expiation of our sins, that you will rarely see a smile on my face during the Liturgy of the Eucharist. That doesn't mean that I am not rejoicing. Even during the hymns and readings, my joy is often expressed in tears, not smiles. It is wrong to assume that a somber face is an unhappy one. I am extremely grateful for His gift and love Him dearly, He fills me with joy, but I would rather fall on my face before Him than dance (in His Eucharistic Presence).

There is such a lack of reverence and solemnity in our day, and little respect for tradition and ritual (not to mention lack of faith in the the Most Holy Sacrament). I think that dancing on the Altar, or in the pews for that matter, is an inappropriate response in relation to the magnitude of the event taking place. The Mass is the highest form of worship. At least in our culture, dancing trivializes and secularizes it. Africans may, but Americans and Europeans do not dance during religious worship. I believe that dancing, especially at the Altar of Sacrifice, may lead to a further decay of the modern American Catholic's understanding of the Eucharist.

I am much happier at a highly traditional Mass, done well with bells, smells, chant, and traditional hymnody. (No, I'm not that old...not old enough to remember pre-Vatican II.) I can let my hair down and wave my hands at a prayer meeting or at home in my private time with the Lord.

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This page contains a single entry by Ron Moffat published on June 12, 2004 7:41 AM.

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