joy

A Beautifully Hospitable Dinner at Bethany

 

It is evening in Bethany, the little village near the top of the Mount of Olives. A dinner party has been planned at a small and modest home inhabited by Mary, Martha and Lazarus. With their extended invitation the three siblings plan to honor a special guest. Since the three are living together, some folks assume they don’t have much money. This fits well with the highly symbolic world of their Scriptures because Bethany, in Hebrew, means house of the poor.

Jesus is a close friend to these three siblings, each one so different from the others. They embrace him with a love that helps us see what godly friendship is all about. Jesus and the siblings are especially close now. After seeing his loving tears at Lazarus’ tomb, and how he brought their brother back to life, he is dear to the two sisters’ hearts.

While evening brings quiet to the village, those gathered for the meal sense a wariness amongst their neighbors. Jesus’ arrival in nearby Jerusalem has evoked tension and conflict. Despite this, his beloved friends appear not to realize that Lazarus’ resuscitation has prompted a plan to kill Jesus. Just before describing this supper, John tells us that the chief priests and the Pharisees have ordered anyone knowing where Jesus was to report it, so they might arrest him. Tension radiates outward from the Temple, throughout the city. But at the top of the hill across the Kidron Valley, in the soft light of small oil lamps, Jesus and his disciples are welcomed to dinner. Despite having a small household with limited means, their hosts have planned a festive and joyous evening.

With spiritual insight, James Tissot has captured the circumstances of Jesus’ slow walk to the dinner. The Eastern Wall of the Temple is at Jesus’ back ~ the very place where he will enter in a few days on what we now call ‘Palm Sunday.’ He is ascending the Mount of Olives, from which it was believed the Messiah would someday come and enter into the Temple. In a very subtle way, Tissot visually hints at the storms hovering over the Holy City as the Passover approaches. Yet, at this moment, Jesus walks quietly toward what he surely wishes will be a peaceful evening ~ and for a pause from the stress and pressure that his coming to Jerusalem has aroused.

At this dinner, Mary models a beautifully extravagant idea. It is to offer all that we are, and all that we have to God’s self-revelation in Jesus! And, for the sake of God’s kingdom! To make such an offering is way beyond the usual and reasonable bounds within which we constrain ourselves. And far beyond the usual prudent limits by which we measure things in terms of cost. But as we see in Mary’s example, there is usually only one thing that moves us to respond in this way: joy! Sheer joy grabs her heart and moves her to give her all. Mary gives her all to him, and to the new life that he is even now unleashing in this world.

 

The above painting is James Tissot’s, Jesus Goes in the Evening to Bethany. This post is based on my homily for Sunday, April 7, 2019, which can be accessed by clicking here.  Other homilies of mine may be accessed by clicking here. The Revised Common Lectionary, which specifies the readings for Sundays and other Holy Days, can be accessed by clicking here.

The Beauty of Delight

 

Periodically I’m struck by the sudden power of familiar words ~ of words which we are so accustomed to hearing that we hardly attend to them. Last week it happened when I was praying the opening confession in (daily) Morning Prayer. After referring to what ‘we have done and left undone,’ we express our repentance, and ask for God’s mercy. There then follow some remarkable words, which we say to God. With them, we identify why we ask for God’s mercy: it is so “that we may delight in your will, and walk in your ways, to the glory of your Name.”

I’m sure these words stood out to me because— like many of you—I am still grieved by the horrible Pennsylvania report, charging dozens (if not more) of Roman Catholic clergy with sexual abuse. Even bishops and cardinals have been involved. And then, on the heels of that troubling news, came word that two men close to the President were now convicted felons. And, one of them has implicated the Commander in Chief regarding immoral and possibly illegal activity.

This leaves me wondering about us as a people and nation. How and why have we strayed so far from walking in God’s ways? And then, remembering the words of the confession, I was struck by this realization: maybe it’s because we no longer delight in God’s will. To seek and accept God’s will; to respect and be obedient to it ~ these are fundamentally different from delighting in it. And this may be the key.

In what do I delight? In what do you delight? Probably it is someone or something you love. I recognize this right away when I see a cute picture of one of my grandchildren. I love them. And I greatly delight when I see them happy, having fun and being creative. Closely related to this kind of delighted appreciation for someone or something we love, is joy. We joy in those in whom we delight, and we love them through joyfully delighting in them.

But we face a challenge here. For we live in a culture in which we have lost our appreciation for the important difference between passive feelings, and acts of virtue. If delight, love and joy are merely feelings, and feelings we hope that others will evoke in us, then we have sold these virtues short. For, in the spirituality and ethics of our great tradition, delight, love and joy are noble acts.They are not just feelings, because practicing these virtues builds character, both within ourselves and in our communities. Thomas Aquinas is remembered for saying that “joy is the noblest human act.” How true! He meant that we choose to take joy in the Lord, and in God’s merciful Providence. This helps us delight in God’s will, and live in God’s love.

 

This post is based on my homily for Sunday, August 26, 2018, which can be accessed by clicking here. The photo above is of my good friend Stuart, who takes great joy in fishing every day for lake trout, and who delights in catching and releasing them.