Why We Feast: A Matter of Life and Death

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“I have come that you may have life and have it to the fullest.”  (John 10:10)

“The glory of God is man fully alive.”  ∼ St. Irenaeus, Against Heresies

The Church tells us that we exist for the purpose of giving glory to God. We see that happening most directly in the liturgy of the Mass, but our entire life exists for liturgy, the praise and glory we owe to the Creator. This end or purpose does not conflict with our intrinsic longings or personal fulfillment. God is our happiness and he is glorified by the life that blossoms in us. Festivity is a key way that we express the joy, gratitude, and happiness that we have from God. It forms a liturgy of our life in which we gather together to praise God through fellowship, food and drink, music, and prayer.

Today our lives have broken away from this liturgy. Secularism poses a fundamental challenge to festivity, because within a secular culture our lives do not point to God, but to ourselves. We do not find our joy in being a creature of God, but fear him as a threat to our freedom. We crouch in anxiety and turn to intoxicants to cover over this anxiety. We can’t celebrate because we don’t have anything to celebrate, so we create false festivals of consumerism and shallow distractions to point us away from what is worth celebrating. Christmas has become a flashpoint of true versus false festivity. One festivity affirms that we have a life worth living and celebrating because God has become man, whereas the other festivity turns us rather to a sentimentality expressed in superficial narratives and entertainment.

 

Josef Pieper, in his great work on festivity, In Tune with the World, contrasts true Christian festivity with our modern inability to celebrate. He points to the artificiality of our secular celebrations: “The artificial holiday is not only a sham festival; it borders so dangerously on counterfestivity that it can abruptly be reversed into ‘antifestival.’” He also challenges our “true existential poverty … in having lost the power to celebrate a festival festively,” which includes food, wine, song, dancing, art, and the praise of God. Our own celebrating has become flat, lacking not only the religious heart of festivity, but also the true joy and merriment that marked ancient feasts.

A key cause of our existential poverty comes from the breaking of the temporal from the eternal. Our feasting should be a sign of heaven, that angelic “festal gathering” (Heb. 12:22). The link to the eternal enlivens our ability to raise a festive glass, truly rejoicing in the Lord, the goodness of his creation, and his arrival in this world to sanctify it. Pieper affirms that “to celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.” This assent to the world, as a moment of leisure, entails a breaking out of the mundane ritual that confines us. It opens us to the transcendent so that “in celebrating festivals festively, man passes beyond the barriers of this present life on earth” (43). The joy of the festival, drawing together the memory of both earthly and divine blessings, points to the eternal joy of heaven by giving us a small, imperfect glimpse of the eternal feast.

Pieper quotes Nietzsche, of all people, on our inability to feast: “The trick is not to arrange a festival, but to find someone who can enjoy it.” Even if Nietzsche may not have much to teach us positively, he can help us to recognize a problem. For him, however, the problem lay in the Christian draining of a feast of its self-focused affirmation. In his Will to Power, he speaks of feasts within the section “What has been ruined by the church’s misuse of it” (no. 916).

Feasts: One has to be very coarse in order not to feel the presence of Christians and Christian values as an oppression beneath which all genuine festive feelings go to the devil. Feasts include: pride, exuberance, wantonness; mockery of everything serious and Philistine; a divine affirmation of oneself out of animal plenitude and perfection–one and all states which the Christian cannot honestly welcome. The feast is paganism par excellence.

Nietzsche gives us a completely contrary view of festivity—not an affirmation of the goodness of life given to us by the Creator, which would be an act of gratitude—but rather a self-focused divinization that exalts what is vulgar within us.

Nietzsche looked back at the Christian past and saw its alleged emptying out of true festivity, but now we can look back on the last hundred or more years and evaluate the return of pagan self-focused festivity. Festivity might be the true touchpoint that expresses the underlying differences of the City of Man and the City of God. True festivity appreciates life as a gift; false festivity distorts life in its grasp for pleasure. True festivity discovers joy in the other; false festivity sees the other as an annoyance and competitor. True festivity sees itself as an image of what is beyond; false festivity makes an idol of the present.

Festivity is a matter of life and death. Do we affirm the goodness of life as given to us by God so as to be able to cherish it and order ourselves toward life everlasting? Or do we affirm ourselves and our desires, which are cut off from meaning and a choice leading ultimately to despair? Consider the joyful exuberance of a traditional country dance versus the suffocating darkness and isolation of a contemporary night club or even a high school dance. Christian festivity may have the answer to the problem in that it affirms all of the true goodness of life, embracing even the secular and integrating it into a liturgical order.

For Christian festivity to triumph, however, there must be conversion. Nietzsche may have been wrong as to the cause of anti-festivity, but he was right about our inability to celebrate. Festivity comes down to the ability to experience the joy that God has given us by making us in his image and by redeeming us. This joy overflows in the communal celebration: the sharing of a meal, singing and dancing, giving gifts, and the offering of a toast. Obstacles must be removed: a hedonism that focuses on partying and losing oneself in pleasure; the utilitarianism that focuses only on what can be gained and which has turned holidays into a profit-making business; an amnesia that doesn’t recognize one’s own cultural or religious identity and doesn’t know of anything worth celebrating; and an individualism that keeps one trapped within one’s own horizon where one is unable to see life as a gift to be received and given. Our inability to celebrate truly constitutes nothing short of an existential crisis.

Rediscovering festivity is an urgent necessity for our culture. God has shown us the necessity of festivity by putting a day of leisurely rest into every week, a day that commemorates both creation and the re-creation of the Resurrection. The Lord’s Day cannot be celebrated at Mass alone as it is a festive day, not a festive hour. Speaking of the Sabbath to Moses in Leviticus, God clearly linked the day to festivity and spoke of it reaching into the home itself: “The appointed feasts of the Lord which you shall proclaim as holy convocations, my appointed feasts, are these. Six days shall work be done; but on the seventh day is a sabbath of solemn rest, a holy convocation; you shall do no work; it is a sabbath to the Lord in all your dwellings” (Lev. 23:2-3). God frees us from the cycle of bondage to work and enables us to experience his holiness breaking into and shaping time.

This weekly cycle of festivity shows the constant need for memory, remembering what God has done for us and experiencing its fruits in our celebration. Leviticus 23 continues to elaborate on all the feasts that shape the year as “Moses declared to the people of Israel the appointed feasts of the Lord” (Lev. 23:44). The yearly remembrances included the Passover, of course, as well as the wandering in the desert, and also included festivals to dedicate the fruits of the harvest and to atone for sin. The liturgy must extend beyond the normal daily and even weekly prayers offered to God to shape the movements of the year and the major events of culture and life.

Festivity, therefore, prolongs the liturgical celebration and translates it into familial and social life. We see the foundation for Christian festivity in Acts of the Apostles: “And day by day, attending the temple together and breaking bread in their homes, they partook of food with glad and generous hearts, praising God and having favor with all the people” (Acts 2:46–47). Festivity extends liturgy with the meal, which becomes an image of the Eucharist, praising God with food and drink and through fellowship. The music and dancing continue the praise of prayer and when rightly ordered become an expression of the overwhelming joy of life expressed in voice and through the body. The toast is the clearest expression of the affirmation of festivity as everyone raises a glass to honor each other and the many blessings received.

Nietzsche thought Christians had killed festivity, whereas in fact they could affirm the goodness of the world and life much more than a pagan. Christian festivity could embrace all the elements of classical festivity—though without the excess of sin—and link them with an even more meaningful order to eternal life. In his biography of St. Augustine, the historian Peter Brown described what a feast day looked like in the early Church:

A festival of a martyr was a time of torchlight vigils in the warm summer nights. It was a time of glory, marked by a suspension of the ordinary—by the chanting of songs, by the elevation of good wine, even by rhythmic dance…. To go to a feast of the martyrs was to draw sustenance through deep, almost non-verbal participation—through excited throngs, through liquor, music and swaying movement—in triumph of the martyr’s victory. The high cheer of such occasion, associated with the earthy ingredients of any ancient festival, celebrated a blinding flash of supernatural power that brought a little luster to the dull, constrained existence of the average Christian.

Although Augustine felt a bit uncomfortable with these celebrations, fearing they might fall into excess, another Church Father, writing under Augustine’s own name, a pseudo-Augustine, affirmed the necessity of raising a glass to honor God, writing to hermits that “I prescribe that, at least on Sundays and feast days, they drink wine or beer.” Wine and beer are a traditional and necessary part of our celebration as they give us a way to connect to each other in joy and to drink in thanksgiving to God.

I explored, in particular, the role of beer in shaping our festivity in my new book, The Beer Option: Brewing a Catholic Culture Yesterday & Today. Beer is a fruit of our work, making use of the goods of creation—water, barley, hops, and yeast—which can and should contribute to a healthy, happy, and holy lifestyle. Moderate consumption promotes health and nutrition and beer serves to gather us together as friends to talk and celebrate. It should also be ordered toward God through its use in festivity to praise and thank God. The monks, who are the best brewers in the world, give us a model for this, as they have integrated brewing into their life of prayer and work. They have formed a liturgical culture, shaping all that they do, including their eating and drinking, by their life of praise.

We, too, have the opportunity to create a new, integrated Catholic culture, which includes the moderate use of alcohol, and which aims to create a merry, wholesome, and familial celebration of life. Each Sunday provides the prime opportunity to encounter others over a drink, and all the more so as we gather on these great holy days: Christmas, New Year’s, and the Epiphany. On these days, our eating and drinking will extend the Eucharistic thanksgiving of the Mass further into our lives. Our shared meals will serve as a sacramental of thanksgiving and communion, making the Lord present as two or more are gathered in his name. In this Christmas season, remember why we celebrate, and offer the food, gifts, songs, and family time to God as an expression of the joy we have in him and the thanks we owe him. This will turn a limited worldly celebration into a transcendent life-giving festival for the glory of God.

Editor’s note: Pictured above is a detail from “Champagne Toast” painted by Andrea Landini (1847-1935).

R. Jared Staudt

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R. Jared Staudt is the Director of Formation for the Offices of Evangelization and Catholic Schools of the Archdiocese of Denver and teaches for the Augustine Institute. He earned his BA and MA in Catholic Studies at the University of St. Thomas in St. Paul, MN and his PhD in Systematic Theology from Ave Maria University in Florida. Staudt served previously as a director of religious education in two parishes, taught at the University of Mary, and served as co-editor of the theological journal Nova et Vetera. He is a Benedictine oblate and author of The Beer Option (Angelico Press). He and his wife Anne have six children.

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