Community and Growth
Jean Vanier, pp. 313-322
At the heart of community: celebration
Forgiveness and celebration are at the heart of community. These are the two faces of love. Celebration is a communal experience of joy, a song of thanksgiving. We celebrate the fact of being together; we give thanks for the gifts we have been given. Celebration nourishes us, restores hope, and brings us the strength to live with the suffering and difficulties of everyday life. The poorer people are, the more they love to celebrate. The festivals of the poorest people in Africa last for several days. They use all their savings on huge feasts and beautiful clothes. They make garlands of flowers and they set off fireworks – for light and explosions are an integral part of celebration. These festivals nearly always commemorate a divine or religious event – they are sacred occasions.
In richer countries we have lost the art of celebrating. People go to movies or watch television or have other leisure activities; they go to parties, but they do not celebrate.
Rich societies have lost their sense of tradition and so their sense of celebration as well. Celebration is linked to family and religious tradition. As soon as it gets away from this, it tends to become artificial, and people need stimulants like alcohol to get it moving. Then it is no longer a celebration. It may be a party, where we come together to eat and drink, but when we dance it is usually in couples and often alone. We have become spectators. Our society has its theatres, cinema, and television. But it has lost its sense of celebration.
Celebration is the specific act of a community as people rejoice and give thanks to the Father for he has bonded them together; he is looking after them and loves them. They are no longer individuals locked up in their own loneliness and independence. They are one body and each of them has their place in the body. Celebration is a cry of joy from all of them covenanted together, for they have been led through the passage of loneliness to love, of discouragement to hope.
Celebrations certainly have a role in helping people to accept the sufferings of everyday life by offering them the chance to relax and let go. But to see them as nothing but a form of escapism or drug, is to fail to understand human nature. We all live a daily life which brings its own weariness: we make things dirty, we clean them, we plough, sow, and harvest. We have long hours to travel to work, which is frustrating; and at work there is discipline, efficiency and a programme to be respected, and then there is the stress. In family life there are sometimes barriers and lack of communication between people; we may close ourselves off from others in television, books or other things, feeling guilty and making others feel guilty; inside us there is a lot of inner pain. As we need the day for work, activity, prayer, rejoicing and the night for sleep, and as we need the four seasons with their different climates, so too we need the drudgery of dailiness and the joys of celebration; we need the work day and the Sabbath. Our human hearts need something beyond the limitations and frustrations of the daily grind. We thirst for a happiness which seems unattainable on earth. We crave the infinite, the universal, the eternal – something which gives a sense to human life and its irksome daily routines. A festival is a sign of heaven. It symbolizes our deepest aspiration – an experience of total communion.
Celebration expresses the true meaning of community in a concrete and tangible way. So it is an essential element in community 1ife. Celebration sweeps away the irritations of daily life; we forget our little quarrels. The aspect of ecstasy in a celebration unites our hearts; a current of life goes through us all. Celebration is a moment of wonder when the joy of the body and the senses are linked to the joy of the spirit. It unites everything that is most human and most divine in community life. The liturgy of the celebration – which brings together music, dance, song, light and the fruit and flowers of the earth – brings us into communion with God and each other, through prayer, thanksgiving and good food. (And the celebratory meal is important!) The harder and more irksome our daily life, the more our hearts need these moments of celebration and wonder. We need times when we all come together to give thanks, sing, dance, and enjoy special meals. Each community, like each people, needs its festival liturgy.
Celebration is nourishment and resource. It makes present the goals of the community in symbolic form, and so brings hope and a new strength to take up again everyday life with more love. Celebration is a sign of the resurrection which gives us strength to carry the cross of each day. There is an intimate bond between celebration and the cross.
The greatest pain of human beings is separation and loneliness, which always produce guilt, anger, vengeance, jealousy and such like; these are the seeds of war. All this is a foretaste of death. The deepest cry in the heart of the human person is a cry for life, and life is unity and peace. Joy flows from unity. And unity is born from daily love, mutual acceptance and forgiveness. Celebration is the song of joy and thanksgiving flowing from a sense of unity but also creating and deepening it.
For married couples, their love and tenderness expressed through their bodies is a celebration of unity. They are one body, one being; they belong to each other. Members of communities are called to celebrate their unity, the fact that they belong to one another, and to God. If they don't, then their emotional lives will be frustrated and hurt and they will have more difficulty integrating their sexuality into their capacity to relate.
It is so important for a family to celebrate all together. It is so important for the children to laugh and play and sing with their parents and to see their parents happy to be together.
By contrast, there is a sadness about commemorations of political liberation. There is no dancing, no feasting; there are military parades and fly-pasts instead. There is a show of power which people may watch with a certain emotion. But there is no celebration. In France, even in non-Christian quarters, there is a great difference between the tenderness and sweetness of Christmas, when people quite naturally wish each other 'Happy Christmas' and the national celebration of the Fourteenth of July, when there is a slightly serious moment at the war memorial, when you salute the Republic – then it's off to the cafe for a drink. In the old days, people used to dance in the cafes – but they don't even do much of that now.
In the same way when people come to honour success and power or to give out prizes to winners; they do not celebrate. They clap and applaud. They are proud if the winners come from their club or group or family or country. In some ways they identify with the winner and feel they are the best. But there are so many who are losers, who have no success nor power. Celebration is a shout of love, and of openness, not a feeling of power and superiority
Very often these days we have joy without God, or God without joy. That is the result of a certain tradition of God as all-powerful and severe, a tradition which separated joy from the divine. But celebration is joy with God. Each culture and each tradition expresses this joy in a different way, with more or less restraint. At l'Arche, we can celebrate with a burst of laughter and song, and then immediately go into prayer and silence. Shouldn't every celebration end in the silent prayer which is the celebration of our personal meeting with God?
True belly laughs are important in community life. When a group laughs in this way, many pains are swept away.
Laughter is something very human. I am not sure angels laugh! They adore. When human beings are too serious they become tense. Laughter is the greatest of relaxations. And there is something funny about humanity. Little as we are, poor as we are, with all our 'animal' needs, we are called to become more than angels; brothers and sisters of God, the Word made flesh. It seems so ludicrous and wonderful, so crazy and yet so ecstatic. And the most rejected are called to be at the heart of the Kingdom. Everything is upside down. No wonder some people at sacred moments have the giggles.
Celebration is a time to thank God for an event in the past when he showed his loving presence to humanity itself or the community in particular. It is also a reminder that he is always there, today, watching over his people and the community, as a loving father watches over his children. We are celebrating not only something which happened in the past, but something which is happening now. For the Jewish people, Passover is a reminder of the time when the angel of Yahweh passed by and God freed his people; they give thanks to Yahweh today, who continues in the same way to be their guide, pastor, protector and loving Father.
When people celebrate Christmas, they are celebrating the same reality, the same love of the Father who sent his only beloved son into the world to save it. And Jesus is born in our hearts to heal us, to make us whole and to save us. The feast day re-actualizes the event that happened long ago. It is not just remembering what happened; it is living it today.
It is sad when people forget what it means to celebrate Christmas, and when everything is reduced to food and drink, and to giving expensive toys to already spoilt children. Christmas is the celebration of the poor and the children. It is the celebration of the family. It is a time of peace.
In many of our l'Arche homes on Holy Thursday, after the Eucharistic celebration when we celebrate Jesus transforming for the first time the bread into his body, we eat the paschal meal. During his meal, we bring to mind all the moments of grace we have lived together during the past year. Then we wash each other's feet and ask forgiveness one of another. All this is done with love and simplicity and a real sense of the sacred. After that we go to pray in the chapel, spending time with Jesus who had said in the Garden of Olives: 'Can you not watch one hour with me?'
Each community should celebrate its anniversaries according to its own history and traditions – like the moment God inspired the foundation, or a particular occasion when he protected the community.
It is important to remember and to re-read our own personal histories and the history of the community on certain feast-days, and then to give thanks for the way God has watched over us, protected us and saved us over the years. Remembering too that if he called the community into being and looked after it in the past, then he will continue to do so today with all our questions, difficulties and tensions. Yes, he continues to watch over us.
There is also the celebration at the end of the year when a community gives thanks for and rejoices in what it has received in the past twelve months. And then there are smaller celebrations – birthdays, weddings, christenings – through which we recognize the uniqueness, the particular place and the gift of each individual. There are also the small daily celebrations which spring up around meals and happen spontaneously when we meet. When the prodigal son returned, his father told the servants: 'Bring quickly the best robe, and put it on him; and put a ring on his hand and shoes on his feet; and bring the fatted calf and kill it, and let us eat and make merry; for this my son was dead, and is alive again; he was lost and is found' (Luke 15:22-4).
The Gospels speak continually of feast-days and celebrations. Jesus' first miracle was at the wedding feast at Cana where he turned water into wine so that the celebration could be more beautiful, and not just a few good bottles but over four hundred litres and for people who had already had quite a lot to drink! The generosity of God! It was often at a moment of celebration that Jesus appeared at the Temple and announced a special good news. And he died on the feast of the Passover. We need to learn how to use each feast day, each celebration to bring the appropriate message of love and hope through the Word and through mime: there is a message for each day that can nourish the heart and renew and deepen the vision, giving new life.
At the heart of celebration, there are the poor. If the least significant is excluded, it is no longer a celebration. We have to find dances and games in which the children, the old people, and the weak can join equally. A celebration must always be a festival of the poor, and with the poor, not for the poor.
Some people are reluctant to go to celebrations in a community. They feel tired and a bit closed up in themselves. When they do go, however, they come away refreshed and feel liberated inside. But no one should be obliged to go to a celebration. There is always someone who is in pain and who does not want to celebrate. And then there are those who have difficulty being in a group; so they remain outside, listening to everything that is going on. They are in and out of the group at the same time. And then there are some who feel called by Jesus to remain silently with him in the chapel; they participate also in a secret, mystical way.
Visitors are often astonished at the joy they sense at l'Arche. Their impression surprises me, too, because I know how much suffering some people in our communities are carrying. I wonder then if all joy doesn't somehow spring from suffering and sacrifice. Can those who are rich and live in comfort and security with everything they need, and refuse to be close to those who are suffering, be truly joyful? Isn't there a lot of unconscious guilt in them which closes them up? Joy comes from openness. But I am sure that poor people can be joyful. At times of celebration, they seem to overcome all their suffering and frustration in an explosion of joy.
They shed the burden of daily life and they live a moment of freedom in which their hearts simply bound with joy. It is so too with people in community who have learnt to accept their wounds, limitations and poverty. They are forgiven; they are loved. They have discovered liberation; they are not frightened of being themselves; they do not have to hide away; they are free with the freedom of the Spirit.
A wedding is one of the great celebrations. It is a time when all that is most divine seems to meet all that is most human in joy. 'The Kingdom of God is like a wedding feast.' The celebration is a sign of the eternal celebration. And each small celebration in our communities has to be this sign too.
A celebration is very different from a spectacle, where actors or musicians play to entertain an audience. In a celebration, we are all actors and all audience. It is not a true celebration unless everyone participates.
But there is always an element of sadness in celebration. We cannot celebrate without alluding to it, because there are people on this earth of ours who are not celebrating, who are despairing, anguished, starving and mourning. That is why all celebration, which is like a great 'Alleluia' and song of thanksgiving, should end with a silence in which we remember before God all those who cannot celebrate and who are in pain today.
Each community has its own traditions of celebration. Each has its own liturgy, or special Eucharist, its own way of decorating the chapel; each has its own special meal and way of serving it and decorating the dining room with candles, garlands, and flowers; each has its own songs, party clothes, and dances.
And of course, the way a Trappist monastery celebrates a feast day or a birthday will be different from the way the Church of the Savior or a l'Arche community celebrates. Each community has its charism and its way of announcing that all together they give thanks for being called by God in one body; all give thanks for a particular meaningful day, a feast day. In communities where there is a great deal of silence and prayer, these gestures will be simpler but maybe all the more expressive.
In communities like the 1'Arche ones in Africa, where the members come from different cultures, each person has their own idea of how leisure time should be spent. Canadians like to have a drink; people from Burkina Faso like to visit the neighbors; others want to shut themselves away and read a book. Individuals all have their own preferences. Celebration isn't simply a time for relaxation according to our own culture, a moment 'for ourselves'. It is a well-prepared meeting of joy and wonderment, which goes beyond cultural differences.
It is wonderful to see how the Roman Catholic Church has kept its sense of celebration. Almost every day is a feast day – either a great liturgical festival or a saint's day. And then at the heart of each day we 'celebrate' the Mass. I am always struck by the vocabulary of the Mass: celebration and feast, presence and communion, meal and sacrifice, forgiveness, Eucharist and thanksgiving. These words sum up community life well. We have to be truly present, in communion, with each other because we are in communion with Jesus. And that is feast and celebration. This communion, this celebration, is a time of nourishment. We become bread for each other because God became bread for us; it is a meal at the heart of the community. Sacrifice is always at the centre of community life, because it has to do with the sacrifice of our own interests for those of others, as Jesus sacrificed his life so that we could receive the Spirit. We begin the celebration by asking for forgiveness and we complete it in thanksgiving.
The Eucharist is not there just to feed our personal piety. It is celebration and thanksgiving for the whole community, for the whole Church, and for all humanity. The celebration of the Eucharist is one of the moments in community life when we are most united; everything is offered to the Father in Jesus. For Christians it is the summit and the heart of all celebrations; it is the centre of community.
These days, when there are so many people who are depressed and frightened for the future, it is important to announce and celebrate our hope in God. There may be wars and revolutions; there may be sickness and natural catastrophes, but God is watching over humanity with love. Death is not the end of all. Love has conquered hate and death. Celebrations do not have to be loud nor boisterous; they can be very sober, simply announcing our trust and our love; announcing the unity of the body; announcing the good news: God is present amongst us, he is in our hearts; Jesus is risen and is alive.