Joy is an infallible indication of God’s presence, just as the cross is an infallible indication of Christian discipleship. What a paradox! And Jesus is to blame.
When we look at the Gospels we see that Jesus shocked his contemporaries in seemingly opposite ways. On the one hand, they saw in him a capacity to renounce the things of this world and give up his life in love and self-sacrifice in a way that seemed to them almost inhuman and not something that a normal, full-blooded person should be expected to do. Moreover he challenged them to do the same: “Take up your cross daily. If you seek your life, you will lose it; but if you give up your life, you will find it.”
On the other hand, perhaps more surprisingly since we tend to identify serious religion with self-sacrifice, Jesus challenged his contemporaries to enjoy more fully their lives, their health, their youth, their relationships, their meals, their wine drinking, and all the ordinary and deep pleasures of life. In fact he scandalised them with his own capacity to enjoy pleasure.
We see, for example, a famous incident in the Gospels of a woman anointing Jesus’s feet at a banquet. All four Gospel accounts of this emphasise a certain raw character to the event that disturbs any easy religious propriety. The woman breaks an expensive jar of very costly perfume on his feet, lets the aroma permeate the whole room, lets her tears fall on his feet and then dries them with her hair.
All that lavishness, extravagance, intimation of sexuality and raw human affection is understandably unsettling for most everyone in the room, except for Jesus. He’s drinking it in, unapologetically, without unease, without any guilt or neurosis: Leave her alone, he says, she has just anointed me for my impending death. In essence, Jesus is saying: “When I come to die, I will be more ready because tonight, in receiving this lavish affection, I’m truly alive and hence more ready to die.”
In essence, this is the lesson for us: don’t feel guilty about enjoying life’s pleasures. The best way to thank a gift-giver is to thoroughly enjoy the gift. We are not put on this earth primarily as a test, to renounce the good things of creation so as to win joy in the life hereafter. Like any loving parent, God wants his children to flourish in their lives, to make the sacrifices necessary to be responsible and altruistic, but not to see those sacrifices themselves as the real reason for being given life.
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