Our personal calendar can remind us of tasks and duties, doctor appointments and meetings, parties and graduations and more. The liturgical calendar works in the same way by informing our spiritual life. It teaches us when to feast and when to fast, what to think and pray about, what attitude and disposition to take. Without this reminder, we might be inclined to feast without fasting, or to do neither by simply concerning ourselves selfishly with our own preoccupations. Besides a reminder, many of us need some instruction on how to follow the calendar, specifically how to feast. In his 1842 sermon, “Indulgence in Religious Privileges,” St. John Henry Newman explains how to live the paradox of Christian celebration.
The paradox of Christian celebration is found in the Epistle of St. Jude, who admonishes the Church for feasting “without fear.” A strange criticism it seems. How is it possible to be feasting with joy and yet fearful? Newman explains: “We are very likely to find it difficult to fulfil [sic] two opposite duties, which are nevertheless both possible, and which are duties, because they are so opposite, because they are so difficult; We are very likely from our Lord’s great condescension … to become familiar with Him; and then we “feast without fear.” And it stands to reason, the more frequently we accept His invitation, and seek Him in His sacred ordinance, the greater is our danger of this irreverence, unless we be on our guard.”
We know something of this paradox in our daily lives. If, as a child, you had a good relationship with your father, you were comfortable joking around with him, perhaps even calling him by his first name at times. But you knew when to kid around and when to be serious, that you owed your father respect and your joking wasn’t to cross the line. With God, we want to have the familiarity of children, for “Father” is what He teaches us to call Him; but at the same time, this familiarity is one that contains in it a healthy sense of fear, of reverence for God’s otherness and his holiness.
Between feasting and fearing, we prefer to feast. But what we forget is that godly fear is necessary to feast with joy. Newman says, “I grieve to say, that the spirit of penitence does not keep pace with the spirit of joy” and therefore it is our joy that suffers. For the one who keeps his fast turns his heart toward God and away from created things. Then, when the time of feasting comes around, this one who has fasted will truly celebrate his Father and know the joy of adoration.
When we allow ourselves to seek comfort and to abandon the harder commands of our Lord, we risk drifting into a subtle lukewarmness. We have neither discipline nor joy, just tepidity. And this is why Newman says we must always be on guard. We cannot sleep at the door of our souls: “Christianity,” Newman says, “considered as a moral system, is made up of two elements, beauty and severity; whenever either is indulged to the loss or disparagement of the other, evil ensues. To avoid the path of lukewarmness, “We need a much deeper religion, a more consistent creed, a keener faith, a clearer insight into things unseen, a more real understanding of what sin is, and the consequences of sin, a more practical and self-denying rule of conduct.”
To remain on guard, we can begin by letting the Church’s calendar be our teacher. When we are told to fast, abstain from meat or offer sacrifices, let’s do so in a manly way, not taking the easy route or letting others know how much we are suffering. St. Thérèse and St. Josemaria teach us to carry out small sacrifices, acts of self-denial, which are easier than big ones, yet when done repeatedly are more difficult and pleasing to God. When we are told to feast, let’s do so with fear, with a holy reverence for our Father and a preoccupation with Him alone. As Newman concludes, “May God give us grace to walk thus humbly, thus soberly, thus without censoriousness in this day of confusion; enjoying His blessings, yet taking them with fear and trembling; and disciplining ourselves without gloom, yet not judging or slandering those who are more rigid or less secular than ourselves!”