In books, online and in the company of others, we can always find advice on how to handle difficulties, but counsel on how to celebrate is hard to find. There are whole programs devoted to fasting, but what about feasting? Most of us don’t think we need advice on feasting. But a quick survey of how Americans celebrate holidays and events should show us otherwise: On Thanksgiving, we eat excessively until we fall asleep; Christmas is full of ceremony, but it doesn’t last long, as the day after is also considered a holiday: Box Day, the day we return the gifts we don’t want; When youth reach the age of 21 in our culture, the standard practice is for them to drink until they need their friends to help them walk out of the bar;
Among Christians, the problem is just as pervasive. We know what the excesses of feasting look like, and we attempt to avoid them, but we don’t know how to feast well. St. John Henry Newman, in his sermon “Keeping Fast and Festival,” teaches us how to approach feasting – specifically the very feasting we are engaged in during Easter season.
There is something different about the joy that Easter brings, and Newman adroitly identifies it: “at Easter our joy is highly wrought and refined in its character. It is not the spontaneous and inartificial outbreak which the news of Redemption might occasion, but it is thoughtful; it has a long history before it, and has run through a long course of feelings before it becomes what it is. It is a last feeling and not a first.” That long history is the penance of Lent, the mortifications we impose on ourselves and our identification with Christ’s suffering on the cross.
Leaving Lent and entering Easter can be disorienting. Newman compares it to recovering from a feverish sickness. In sickness we can have strange dreams, confusion and volatile emotions. So also in our time of suffering during Lent, while we attempt to live and understand the mysteries of Christ’s suffering and death, we can become disoriented in the process. Sometimes our emotions match the moment, and at other times they contradict it. “Only at moments his heart has caught a vivid glimpse of what was continually before his reason,—because the impression it made upon him was irregular, shifting, and transitory,—because even when he contemplated steadily his Saviour’s sufferings, he did not, could not understand the deep reasons of them, or the meaning of His Saviour’s words” Newman says.
Slowly, as the clouds clear, joy arrives. This joy is a concluding feeling, Newman says, because it started as sorrow and upon sorrow it depends. Those who have grieved during Lent have the greatest share in that rejoicing. Therefore, entering into Christ’s passion is the first prerequisite to sharing in the joy of the Resurrection.
The second is to enter into the season of Easter, just as we enter into Lent. Lent is long enough to demand more than a simple, effortless sacrifice. It requires a change in lifestyle. The same change should occur in Easter. Newman says, “In such a spirit let us endeavour to celebrate this most holy of all Festivals, this continued festal Season, which lasts for fifty days, whereas Lent is forty, as if to show that where sin abounded, there much more has grace abounded.” Easter is not just a day of celebration to come in and go out with a bang. It’s a season of entering into the freedom and joy Christ’s glorious Resurrection has brought us, and to be propelled out into the world with the Good News.
The third prerequisite to sharing in the joy of Easter, and of feasting in general, is to possess the virtue of temperance, which helps us rightly enjoy created things: “Sobriety in feasting which previous fasting causes, is itself much to be prized, and especially worth securing. For in this does Christian mirth differ from worldly, that it is subdued; and how shall it be subdued except that the past keeps its hold upon us, and while it warns and sobers us, actually indisposes and tames our flesh against indulgence? In the world feasting comes first and fasting afterwards; men first glut themselves, and then loathe their excesses; they take their fill of good, and then suffer; they are rich that they may be poor; they laugh that they may weep; they rise that they may fall. But in the Church of God it is reversed; the poor shall be rich, the lowly shall be exalted, those that sow in tears shall reap in joy, those that mourn shall be comforted, those that suffer with Christ shall reign with Him.” A man truly enjoys wine when he knows when to stop drinking.
Newman’s advice on feasting reminds us that sanctity takes effort. To follow Christ, it’s not sufficient to avoid excesses and to pile on penances – the Pharisees accomplished both. If we desire holiness, we will walk with Christ in His sorrow and rise with Him in His glory, aiming always to imitate Him and inviting others to join us.