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Eat, drink, and be merry: Jesus was no stranger to good times, and neither should we be. So tell your fellow parishioners to turn that frown upside down and sing, dance, and raise a glass--a toast to the good news!

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 (they usually make an exception for these occasions). Ask this disenfranchised crowd why they've given up on church attendance.

You'll hear words like boring, pointless, irrelevant, and rigid. But a common theme is often that their experience of religion and religious people was essentially joyless. 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 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. And 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, put on 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 in the spirit of festival, with music, dancing, costume, food, and wine in no short supply. Was anyone 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 OK for people to feel spiritually uplifted and happy, but not to giggle or be amused. Humor should be checked at the door. The presence of the divine 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!

A woman behind me was outraged through the first half hour of the liturgy, chokingly confiding to her husband her disapproval of the inappropriate atmosphere of festival upon 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 it to her: That priest was smiling. And if smiling were a crime against holiness, that man should have been thrown in jail. I happened to know this particular priest, and I knew 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 the church makes him incredibly happy.

Is that bad? If we believe what we say we do, shouldn't all of us be having a wonderful time in church? Isn't salvation from sin, suffering, and death 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 will be 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 every fellow whose legs were made whole got up and did the jig--right there before the Son of God. And 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 "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 relationship between religion and good times. One imagines that Jesus was no stranger to the rules and regulations of religious faith, and he prayed plenty, if the record of scripture can be trusted. But all of this religion didn't seem to make him grim or stiff.

The Pharisees, often characterized in both those 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.

But 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 called Matthew in some gospels), accepting an invitation from Simon the Pharisee, eating with Zacchaeus, and enjoying the hospitality of Martha's expert kitchen. Jesus even throws his own gala dinner parties for a crowd of thousands in the multiplication of loaves and fishes. Jesus tells stories comparing God's reign with a banquet or a 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 right. 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 take days. The actual ceremony did not take that long, but feasting back then was taken pretty seriously. And somewhere during the course of that rolling, ongoing celebration, the wine ran out.

We get the sense that there's a bit of a flutter about this, so evidently the party hadn't 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 and the merry crowd would soon turn into 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. And we can presume that problem drinkers were not unknown in ancient times (check out the story of Noah in Genesis 9 or Lot in Genesis 19 for examples). 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, as with any search for the historical Jesus, is that biblical stories were told for the sake of their symbolism more than the interests of journalism. Jesus turned water into wine, not to keep the bridal party from being embarrassed nor to validate the practice of drinking one's relatives under the table, but because of the sign value of wine to biblical people. John's gospel--the only gospel in which this story appears--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 symbol of glad hearts. The prophets also used the image of abundant wine running down the mountains as a sign of hope in the nation's restoration 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, and wine is the fulfillment of God's justice. By giving the wedding guests more wine than they could possibly imbibe, Jesus was making quite a statement about the nature of his mission.

This 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 the kingdom coming. Maybe that's why wherever he went people were attracted to him. Everybody wants to have a good time!

But should we enjoy ourselves in church? I think a lot of folks are still unconvinced. On vacation recently, I attended Sunday Mass at a small Midwestern church. The priest was warm, obviously engaged with his community, and a pretty funny guy. He made humorous remarks before Mass, but no one laughed.

At the start of his homily, he told a great rollicking story, but only a few people even smiled. After several more attempts at humor, a few nervous titters erupted, but the folks responsible clapped their hands over their mouths as if ashamed of themselves. Despite the reluctance of the assembly to share the joke, the priest kept plugging away at his relentless message of joy and good news. He himself grinned through the homily and for the rest of the Mass, but the folks in the pews seemed uncertain how to respond.

Perhaps they had inherited the legacy of a former pastor who cowed them into silence and solemnity. Or maybe they were convinced that religion is no laughing matter. Just maybe they were uncomfortable with the idea of joy, period, because of hard circumstances. But whatever our own reasons might be for coming unsmilingly into church, it's time to rethink them.

If abundant gladness is the destination we're headed, it might help to practice a little now.

By ALICE CAMILLE, author of God's Word Is Alive (Twenty-Third Publications) and co-author of a forthcoming book about alienated Catholics to be published by Loyola Press.
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Title Annotation:testaments
Author:Camille, Alice
Publication:U.S. Catholic
Article Type:Column
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:Jan 1, 2004
Words:1875
Previous Article:Door to Door.
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