Gather a roomful of ex-Catholics together if you dare. Or go to just about any wedding or funeral Mass and talk with the relatives who don't go to church anymore (though they usually make an exception for these occasions). Ask this disenfranchised crowd why they've given up on church attending. You'll hear words like "boring, pointless, irrelevant and rigid." Yet, a common theme is often that their experience of religion and religious people was essentially without joy. After all, when people are having fun, they rarely ask what the point is.
To be fair, my ex-Protestant friends will often report the same experience as former Catholics do: Sunday morning was a cavern of grim faces reciting flat, sullen words of hope that sounded strangely hopeless. Nobody was having a good time. If this is the experience of "being saved," it's no wonder that some folks take a pass.
Is it wrong to expect a little fun in church? Does religious faith imply a sober attitude? An old rabbi once declared, "God is an earthquake, not an uncle!" This view seems to suggest that religion is not the place to look for comfort, much less a few laughs. A lot of people go to church, we might say, anticipating the earthquake. An earthquake is a phenomenon that deserves your respect, not to mention a certain watchfulness.
If God is an earthquake, then we'd better straighten up, wear a tie, bow our heads and get down on our knees. Above all, don't laugh! Cracking a smile during an hour set aside for reverence might suggest we don't take this thing seriously. After all, aren't we here for the "holy sacrifice" of the Mass? How can this be squared with the fact that this is also the "celebration" of the sacred mysteries of our faith? Last I checked my dictionary, a sacrifice doesn't usually feel like a reason for cheer.
Yet ancient sacrifices were normally carried out with a festive spirit : with music, dancing costume, food and wine in no short supply. Was everyone expected to wear a long face throughout such an event? Can we imagine no one felt merry or expressed joy? Some of us might be tempted to split some hairs here about the difference between "pious joy" and "secular fun." It's okay for people to feel spiritually uplifted and happy, but not to giggle or be amused. Humor should be checked at the door. The divine presence is not a place to have a good time.
The relationship between religion and fun came to my attention last year during the Easter Vigil no less. I mean we're talking about the most upbeat Liturgy of the church year, a time when we receive new members into the church and celebrate together the astonishing and exciting Good News that Jesus is risen and we will rise too. Alleluia! Yet a woman behind me was outraged, confiding to her husband her disapproval of the festive mood at this sacred feast. Finally she pointed to the presider as if resting her case: "I hate that priest! Look at him, smiling!"
You had to give her the point. That priest was smiling. If smiling were a crime against holiness, that priest should have been thrown in jail. Now I happen to know this particular priest and I know that his faith illumines his life just as radiantly every day of the week. I doubt you'd catch him not smiling; it would seem that belief in God and ministering in church makes him incredibly happy.
Is that bad? If we believe what we say we believe, shouldn't all of us be having a wonderful time in church? Isn't salvation from sin, suffering and death enough cause for joy? If religious faith doesn't make us laugh out loud with the marvelous joke of the kingdom : the last wind up first, the powerful get thrown down and the lowly brought up, the meek inherit the whole shooting match : what other reaction ought we to have? When you think about it, what could be more appropriate than to smile in church?
In the time of Jesus, I have to believe that everyone whose legs were made whole got up and did the jig : right there before the Son of God! I want to think that the woman whose son was restored to life clapped her hands and laughed till she cried. Maybe the reason some of us are reluctant to laugh or express joy in church is because we haven't directly experienced the absolute pleasure of God's healing power in our lives. We fear the "earthquake" and don't quite believe in the force of sheer love. We make no allowances for the friendly "uncle" to sweep us up like a favorite child in strong, caring arms and call us by name.
Apparently Jesus had no such qualms about the connection between religion and good times. One imagines that Jesus was no stranger to the rules and regulations of religious faith; and he prayed aplenty, if the Scriptural records can be trusted; but all this religion didn't seem to make him grim or stiff. The Pharisees, often characterized in both these ways, condemned Jesus for eating and drinking too much and for hanging around with the wrong sort of people. We don't get too many details about that, but Jesus doesn't deny the accusation. He simply replies that John the Baptist fasted and was stern and that didn't please them either.
Yet we do see Jesus at dinner parties throughout the gospels. These meals have great significance for us as believers gathered around the Eucharistic table. We see Jesus dining with the tax collector Levi (also known as Matthew in some gospels), accepting an invitation from Simon the Pharisee, eating with Zacchaeus, and enjoying the hospitality of Martha's kitchen. Jesus even throws his own gala dinner parties for a crowd of thousands in the multiplication of the loaves and fishes. Jesus tells stories comparing God's reign with a banquet or wedding feast; and the last hour he shared with his friends was over a splendid Passover meal.
The story of Jesus' ministry also starts out with a feast, if we read John's gospel correctly. Jesus, his disciples and his mother were all invited to a wedding in progress in Cana : "in progress" because a Galilean wedding celebration could and generally did last for days. The actual ceremony did not take that long; but feasting back then was taken pretty seriously. Somewhere during the course of that rolling, ongoing celebration, the wine ran out.
We get a sense that there's a bit of flutter about this, so evidently the party had not as yet run its course. Had the guests drunk more than usual, or had the host been cheap or remiss in his calculations? It didn't matter. Without wine the feast was as good as over. The merry crowd would soon become a grumbling sea of malcontents. It may be hard for us to put aside our 21st-century consciousness about alcohol to hear this story. We all know someone in a 12-Step program or a friend struggling with diabetes for whom liquor is a health hazard. We also may be inclined toward temperance because of lives we've seen destroyed by intoxicating substances.
We can sit here and argue the politics of having a wedding reception without alcohol, or insist that parties in general can and do go on quite nicely without a drop of the stuff. We can also presume that problem drinkers were not unknown in ancient times.... Given these considerations, we may ask couldn't Jesus think of anything better to do with six urns of water than to turn them into wine?
The trouble with this approach to the text...is that biblical stories were told for the sake of their symbolism more than in the interest of journalism. Jesus turned water into wine not to keep the bridal party from being embarrassed nor to validate the practice (even then) of drinking ones relatives under the table, but because of the sign value of wine to biblical people. John's gospel here is written around seven great signs that Jesus performed to reveal to believers who he is. This first sign in Cana is about an abundant, extravagant, hilarious amount of wine.
What does Jesus reveal about himself by this gesture? Not that he harbors a secret ambition to be a bartender, surely. In biblical tradition, wine is the sign of glad hearts. The prophets used the image of abundant wine running down the mountains as a sign of hope in the nation's renewal after the exile. After all, you have to be established on the land for quite a while to plant vines and get a harvest of grapes. Wine was even used to represent the end of the world, which is where we get the image of God "trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored."
So wine is happiness. Wine is hope. Wine is the fulfillment of God's justice. By giving the wedding guests more wine than they could possible drink, Jesus was making a statement about the nature of his mission. The scene in Cana is really no different from the stories Jesus told in the other gospels about wedding banquets to which all are invited. Jesus offers the never-ending celebration as a metaphor of his kingdom coming. Maybe that's why wherever he went people were attracted to him. Everybody wants to have a good time!
Should we enjoy ourselves in church? I think a lot of folks are still unconvinced. On vacation recently, I attended Sunday Mass in a small midwestern church. The priest was warm, obviously engaged with his community, and a pretty funny guy. Before Mass, he made humorous remarks but no one laughed. At the start of his homily, he told a rollickingly funny story; but only a few people smiled. After more attempts at humor, a few nervous titters were heard; but the folks responsible clasped their hands over their mouths as if ashamed of themselves. Despite the people's reluctance, the priest kept plugging away at his relentless message of joy and good news. He himself grinned through the homily and for the remainder of the Mass; but those in the pews remained uncertain as to how to respond.
Perhaps they had inherited the legacy of a former pastor who saw God as an earthquake and joy an uncle; or maybe they were convinced that religion is no laughing matter. Maybe they were uncomfortable with the expression of joy because of the hard circumstances of their lives. But whatever our reasons for coming unsmilingly into church, it's time to rethink them. If abundant gladness is the destination for which we're headed, it might help to do some practicing!