There was great joy among the people now that the disgrace brought by the Gentiles was removed. Then Judas and his brothers and the entire assembly of Israel decreed that every year for eight days, from the twenty-fifth day of the month Kislev, the days of the dedication of the altar should be observed with joy and gladness on the anniversary.1 Maccabees 4:58-59
Then Jesus entered the temple area and proceeded to drive out those who were selling things, saying to them, “It is written, ‘My house shall be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves.’”Luke 19:45-46
Today is the feast of St. Cecilia. Although very little to nothing is actually known of her life, there was a church in Rome dedicated to her in the 5th century. One of the stories associated with her is that during her wedding to Valerian she sang songs in her heart, before, no doubt, surprising Valerian with the announcement that she had vowed herself to virginity. In any case, Cecilia became the patroness of musicians.
After all the recent readings from Maccabees about people being martyred in witness to their faith, today we read of the joyous celebration of the purification and rededication of the sanctuary. It is also the relating of the decree that every year for eight days there is to be a joyful celebration of the anniversary of the event (Hannukah). To read the description of the purification and rededication of the altar is to be invited to ponder the kind of joy that leads to a celebration “with songs, harps, flutes, and cymbals” and to imagine a scene in which “All the people prostrated themselves and adored and praised Heaven. . . .”
I suspect that one reason so many younger people are becoming increasingly a-religious is the absence of joy they experience in believers and in religious traditions. As we approach what we call “the holiday season” in our secularized world, we might ask ourselves, in the midst of our planning and fulfilling of our holiday duties, to what degree we shall celebrate “with joy and gladness.” Countless times in speaking with people, I experience their inability even to identify, when asked to describe, their most recent experience of true enjoyment. In both our religious and political spheres, true joy seems a rare commodity.
In recent years I have both visited Africa and been with brothers from Africa on many occasions. Often when Africans have been present at occasions of celebration in Europe or the United States, they will often inquire when the dancing is going to begin. They experience it as quite odd that at our “parties,” we will stand around in twos or threes, drink in hand, merely talking with each other. I can imagine their sense that there seems to be no medium for expression of the joy and gladness of heart that the occasion evokes.
We are told that St. Cecilia “sang in her heart.” Hopefully, we all know the experience of our heart’s singing. Our poetry, music, and film are filled with experiences of such joy and manifold ways of expressing it. The iconic scene of Gene Kelly dancing in “Singin’ in the Rain” comes to mind. We can readily imagine that Cecilia may have experienced her heart singing at the moment of her marriage. So universal is our association of joy and love that much of our popular music is an expression of the experience.
At one level, it may seem strange to us that the scriptures decree a yearly anniversary to be observed with joy and gladness. Joy and gladness, fullness of heart, cannot be mandated. Yet, our experience tells us that there is a wisdom in decreeing that we must take time to overcome our forgetfulness of the sources and reasons for joy, and the truth that life is given to us to be enjoyed. Today’s gospel reading affords some insight into one reason we are so prone to forget joy and enjoyment. Jesus, having wept over Jerusalem, enters the city and the Temple and “proceeded to drive out those who were selling things.” It is in our preoccupation with commerce that we not only desecrate the Temple but forget the core of our own lives. Jesus is so angry because we turn love and grace which God bestows freely on all of us into a commercial product. As the Gentiles desecrated the Temple in the time of the Maccabees, so that desecration goes on to this day in our manipulating for gain rather than celebrating with joy the gifts of God to us.
Life is transformed for us when love breaks through to us because in that love we forget and lose ourselves. In those moments of love and relationship, of prayer and humble work in service to others, our heart sings. We recognize that living is enjoyment, that our life is gift, that we have been loved into being. When we awaken to the reality of the love at the heart of the world, we are filled with joy. A short lyric by William Wordsworth has always captured this experience well for me.
My heart leaps up when I behold
A rainbow in the sky:
So was it when my life began;
So is it now I am a man;
So be it when I shall grow old,
Or let me die!
The Child is father of the Man;
And I could wish my days to be
Bound each to each by natural piety.
In our culture we live largely out of the principles of pragmatism and introspection. In my own religious community, we speak of “discernment” of God’s will as if it is a joyless and humorless task, as if it is nothing but sheer effort on our part. But I often wonder how different our relationships and decision-making would look if we we took time before acting to enter our hearts and to listen to their song. To do so we would need to overcome our resistance to such listening. The resistance, I think, is born of the fact that “the song” our hearts are singing may initially sound quite discordant. To know the joy we must be willing to know the sadness, and the anger, and the hurt and frustration that seem at times to drown it out. For me it is often first loneliness and shame that I hear. Yet, inevitably, if I keep listening, the love that abides beneath it all begins to awaken joy in me. To cease running from ourselves, paradoxically, allows us to forget ourselves enough that “a new song” emerges.
To be a believer is to trust in a love and presence that is intended for our enjoyment. As Wordsworth says, “piety” is our natural state. He knows this because he knows what happens in his heart when he beholds a rainbow. A friend of many years ago who was a director of novices for his community used to ask his novices to spend five minutes a day doing nothing. They found this very difficult. But one of them told him that after many days of having such difficulty doing nothing even for a brief time, that one day “I heard a bird and I cried.” I suspect the tears were tears of joy. To forget ourselves long enough to experience, even for a moment, who we are in the world and what is our true place is to know joy and to enjoy fully that moment.
Jesus is so angry because we take what is sheer gift and we commodify monetize it. Instead of rejoicing in the gift of life, we spend our precious time and energy managing it. We know so little joy and so much frustration because “The ego in its essence is frustration.” Our hearts know a life that is so much more than the life of our ego and its demands. When a nation’s celebrations are celebrations of its wealth, and power, and military dominance, there is little wonder that there is no joy in our political relations. When the celebrations are rather a communal thanks to God for the gifts that sustain us, or mutual celebrations of the gift of freedom from tyranny and oppression, we celebrate not in smug satisfaction but in joy and gratitude. When we assert ourselves less and recognize that all of us share a love common to all, we then express not anger and resentment toward each other but sing a song (and do a dance) of mutual reverence and love.
Many of us, I think, need to re-learn from the child within us how to play, rejoice, and sing. We need to lose what is of the Temple “sellers” in us and instead awaken to the truth that all we are and really need is gift to us. When someone reaches out to me and breaks through my self-preoccupation, my life is momentarily transformed. Everything changes. The truth is that God is always coming to us, reaching out to us, and trying to break through to us at every moment. As we read in Deuteronomy 30:14: “No, the word is very near you; it is in your mouth and in your heart so you may obey it.” As the young novice discovered the great joy of being in his proper place in the world by practicing just five minutes of doing nothing, so our own truth awaits us, when we stop buying and selling, managing our lives as if they belonged to us.
Sing to God “with songs of joy.” This is singing well to God, just singing with songs of joy.St. Augustine, A Discourse on Psalm 32, Office of Readings, Feast of St. Cecilia
But how is this done? You must first understand that words cannot express the things that are sung by the heart. Take the case of people singing while harvesting in the fields or in the vineyards or when any other strenuous work is in progress. Although they begin by giving expression to their happiness in sung words, yet shortly there is a change. As if so happy that words can no longer express what they feel, they discard the restricting syllables. They burst out into a simple sound of joy, of jubilation. Such a cry of joy is a sound signifying that the heart is bringing to birth what it cannot utter in words.
Now, who is more worthy of such a cry of jubilation than God, whom all words fail to describe. If words will not serve, and yet you must not remain silent, what else can you do but cry out for joy? Your heart must rejoice beyond words, soaring into an immensity of gladness, unrestrained by syllabic bonds. “Sing to God with songs of joy.”