Editor’s note: This is an excerpt from the posthumously published “Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in An Age of Anxiety,” by the late Henri Nouwen.
Celebration is what we are called to. We are called to practice joy by celebrating.
What we have to learn is how to celebrate life.
Celebrating life is not a party but an ongoing awareness that every moment is special and asks to be lifted up and recognized as a blessing from on high. When I was with Jean Vanier, who ministered to people with intellectual disabilities, that is what I saw them doing all the time. The church invites us to celebrate. Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, Lent, Pentecost — we celebrate the holy year. We celebrate birthdays and anniversaries, we celebrate Thanksgiving, we celebrate memorial days. We celebrate.
But that is only part of celebrating. We have to go further. To celebrate means to lift up the moment and say, “This is God’s moment.” To celebrate is to lift up today and say, “This is the day the Lord has made!”
And not just on Thanksgiving but also on Monday morning! Let us be glad and joyful. Let us celebrate! If we are able to celebrate life, and not only on special occasions, we realize that we have many occasions to be glad. We realize that something is happening, that something is coming through, and we have to rejoice.
When I was in Peru, the people I was staying with were very poor. They didn’t have anything. I slept on the roof because they didn’t have a room for me. They just put a bed up there. After several months of living there, I said to them, “I am going to leave next week.” They couldn’t have cared less, because since I was still there I wasn’t leaving! It didn’t register.
But finally, on Saturday morning, I said, “I am leaving in an hour.” I had my suitcase and they saw that I was leaving. Because they loved me and I loved them, Sophia, the mother, gave little Johnny some money and he ran out to the store. It was noon, and my bus was leaving in 30 minutes, and I started to get nervous.
But little Johnny came back, and he had a big bottle of Coke and two cookies. He said, “We’ll have a party.” He filled the family’s one glass and took the glass to each person for a little sip. Then he broke the cookies into little pieces and shared them with everyone. Pablito, a boy of thirteen, said, “Let’s have a bit of music.” There was this old, cranky record player, I don’t know where it came from, but he made it go. He said, “Let’s dance!”
It was twelve noon. I have to leave at 12:15 and we’re having this party! A little Coca-Cola, a little bit of cookie, and a little dancing. They were laughing and saying goodbye. Then they took my suitcase and everyone walked me to the bus. There was a big farewell, and I realized that we had just celebrated the Eucharist.
What a gift those people had to bring me in touch with joy! I was in touch with their poverty, their issues, their medical care. It was all very real, and they needed a lot of help, but in the midst of it they remained joyful.
Celebration doesn’t mean to celebrate only the good moments. Ecstatic joy embraces all of life and does not shy from painful moments, departures and even death. Death is celebrated not because it is desirable but because death has no final power over us. There is never a death that cannot bear fruit.
We can celebrate pain not because pain is good but because we can pray with it and break bread together. Difficult moments can be lifted up. We lift them up in gratitude.
Celebration is really an expression of gratitude. Death doesn’t have the final word. Even agony, pain, struggles, war, all of that, is somehow not the final power. God is a God of the Living. “You shall have life and life abundantly.”
The more we celebrate, the more we realize that we are in communion. To celebrate is to create community. It is the first sign of the Kingdom proclaimed among us. Celebration is the way in which faith in the God of Life is lived out, whether there are smiles or tears. Celebration reveals the deep undercurrent of joy that flows beneath all of our ups and downs.
Jesus rewards us with joy. Not only later, but now. Not only in the happy moments but also in our sorrow. Joy is hidden in our suffering and revealed in our communal life.
Excerpted from “Following Jesus: Finding Our Way Home in An Age of Anxiety,” drawn from talks given by the Catholic priest and theologian while he was teaching at Harvard Divinity School and edited by Gabrielle Earnshaw. Published by Convergent Books. Copyright © 2019 by The Henri Nouwen Legacy Trust. Used by permission.