TO BE A CHRISTIAN - II
One look at the beaming faces of St John XXIII, St John Paul II, and Pope Francis should answer the charge of dourness. They are evidently having a great deal of ‘fun’ – presumably modern shorthand for enjoyment – in being Christian. The question is what is meant by ‘fun’?
Before turning to Scripture let’s look at some Christians having fun. There is the legend of the Jongleur de Notre Dame. Driven by poverty and hunger, he asks to be enrolled as a monk. All the other monks have some service to offer to God but the jongleur-turned-monk knows only his own skills. Having nothing else to offer to Our Lady, he performs his routine before her, juggling and tumbling, thinking no one is around. Someone does see him and reports to the Prior, who is scandalised. But the statue of the Virgin seems to come to life. She smiles at the jongleur and stretches out her arms in blessing. Only a legend, but the Benedictines did have a lot of ‘fun’ in their various monastic activities, and even cloistered orders have hours allotted to recreation.
How many saints there have been, some unexpected names among them, filled with the mirth that is the product of godliness: Philip Neri, Bonaventure, Dominic Savio, Paul of the Cross, Théophane Vénard, Clare of Assisi, Ignatius of Loyola are only a few. Francis of Assisi was famous for the joy he manifested and proclaimed. Joan the Maid from Domremy had the simple sense of fun of a country girl, an innocent but intelligent, courageous child of God. Once, while Teresa of Ávila was travelling to a convent, she was knocked off her donkey, fell into the mud, and injured her leg. “Why did you let this happen to me, Lord?” she asked, and heard the response: “That is how I treat my friends.” In keeping with her playful relationship with God, this Doctor of the Church replied, “No wonder you have so few of them.” She was known to be witty, and lively. Florence Nightingale, a devout Christian, could be funny in a letter about the horrifying conditions in which she worked in the Crimea. About the multitude of rats she wrote: “if they had but unity of purpose, [they could] carry off the four miles of beds on their backs, and march with them into the War Office, Horse Guards, S.W.”
Gerard Manley Hopkins the Jesuit priest, and George Herbert, the Anglican pastor, wrote joyful and beautiful poems expressing their faith. G. K. Chesterton, the Catholic convert, and C. S. Lewis, who returned from unbelief to the Anglican fold, wrote with great humour. All these clearly had ‘fun’ being Christian. As did J. R. R. Tolkien, a hobbit himself, as he once wrote to a fan: “I am in fact a Hobbit (in all but size). I like gardens, trees and unmechanized farmlands; I smoke a pipe, and like good plain food (unrefrigerated), but detest French cooking; I like and even dare to wear in these dull days, ornamental waistcoats. I am fond of mushrooms (out of a field); have a very simple sense of humour (which even my appreciative critics find tiresome); I go to bed late and get up late (when possible). I do not travel much.” He was a Catholic convert fervent in his practice of his faith.
J. S. Bach was a notably Christian composer, who wrote the monumental Mass in B minor and the St Matthew Passion, besides other works for the glory and worship of God. He also wrote the bubbly Coffee Cantata in praise of drinking coffee! Handel, who was by no means a model Christian, but a sincere one, wrote Messiah, one of the pinnacles of composition in Western Classical Music. Who has heard the joy-filled choruses from it without being moved to a like joy? Gabriel Fauré was irreligious, although he earned his bread mainly as a church organist. On the Requiem, which is one of his best-known works, he made the irreverent remark that he wrote it mainly to please himself, investing it with “everything I managed to entertain by way of religious illusion.” God, who frequently chooses most unworthy instruments to work his will, had the last laugh. Fauré’s Requiem is in consonance with the spirit in which the Church now conducts a service of requiem, after the Second Vatican Council.
Another markedly faulty instrument is the director and actor Mel Gibson. Yet he surely was inspired when he wrote and made The Passion of the Christ. In it, Gibson has a passage between Jesus and his mother which is far from being untrue to the spirit of the Evangel in the New Testament. Certainly it added to the poignancy of the rest – and was so intended – but it is not the less true for all that. True to the spirit of Jesus, true to the Holy Spirit of God. A moment of ‘fun’ as Jesus journeys through a dark valley.
Through the inspiration of the Holy Spirit – (Holy) Wisdom in the Old Testament – the writings collected in the books of Psalms and Proverbs, Ecclesiastes, 2 Samuel, and Exodus all contain references to joy; to eating and drinking; to singing and dancing; to shouting and laughing. Does St Paul appear a kill-joy? He wrote this: “Let us therefore celebrate the festival, not with the old leaven, the leaven of malice and evil, but with the unleavened bread of sincerity and truth.” (I Cor. 5-8)
And so to Jesus himself. ‘Glutton’ and ‘drunkard’ they called him, who saw him at a meal with sinners. But was he encouraging the sinners to carry on sinning? Was he condoning their sin? Evidently not. Zacchaeus the tax-collector utterly reformed his life. Simon the Pharisee invited Jesus to a meal at which a woman once notorious as a sinner washed Jesus’ feet with her tears, wiped them with her hair, and anointed them with costly ointment. She had been forgiven many sins. From her actions Jesus drew a lesson for the Pharisee which he may, or may not, have learned.
Jesus worked his first miracle at a wedding feast. He turned water into the finest wine anyone had tasted. Nothing dour about that. No dark valleys. After he called back the daughter of Jairus from death, Jesus said, “Give her something to eat.” He was evidently concerned with feeding people; and with food and drink. Also with feasting and celebration. Many parables speak of feasts and weddings. Dark valleys?
Jesus also manifested a sense of humour, as when Philip brought Nathaniel to him. Philip possibly roused his friend from a nap under a fig tree. “Can any good thing come out of Nazareth?” grumbled Nathaniel, but he went along. Jesus said, at sight of the two advancing, “Behold an Israelite in whom there is no guile.” We need some explanation here, which his disciples did not. Israel was the name given to Jacob. And Jacob was known by all Jews to be one of the Patriarchs, but known also as a trickster. He tricked his father, and his father-in-law. Jesus could have said “son of Abraham” instead, but – surely smiling on account Nathaniel’s grumble about Nazareth – he said “Israelite”, and proceeded to confound the now wide-awake Nathaniel by talking of his having been under a fig tree. If, as might be the case, Nathaniel is the same as Bartholomew, this guileless Israelite went on to lay down his life for his faith. That was a dark valley. But beyond it was boundless joy; joy everlasting. It’s true that Michelangelo didn’t give that impression in his Last Judgement, but then old Buonarroti was himself a dour man, young and old, and painted his face looking miserable on the flayed skin of the saint...
Since the time draws near to celebrate with anthem, carol, and hymn; with bells and light; with food and drink, the birth of Jesus our Saviour, let us turn to a hardworking, poor, shepherd filled with joy because
While by my sheep I watched at night,
Glad tidings brought an angel bright:
How great my joy...
(Trad. German carol dated to the 1600s).
And to the simple shepherd bringing humble offerings to the new-born Child:
Lo, merry He is!
Lo, He laughs, my Sweeting!
Ah, a very fair meeting!
I have held to my telling:
Have a bob of cherries.
(Wakefield OR Towneley Plays in a version by John Russell Brown (1983): Second Shepherds’ Play).