The Kingdom of God as a Celebration

Christmas day – how will you celebrate? Will you gather with family and friends, eating a great feast, listening to music, and enjoying one another’s company? Think of the happiest moments of you life, and reflect on the type of celebrations you had. One thing we can say about all humanity, the world over, and that is we all love to celebrate.

Whether it’s a wedding or a baptism, whether it’s a religious holiday like Christmas, or even a secular holiday like New Years, we all enjoy celebrating. And all of us know how we Greeks and Albanians and other Mediterranean people really know how to celebrate in a grand manner!

Celebrating plays a central aspect in any life, and it makes up an important part of who we are as human beings. This is why even those in the most horrid conditions – whether in slums or in abject poverty, whether in concentration camps or prisons – everyone still tries to find or create reasons to celebrate. Human beings cannot live without celebrations.

Well, in the time of Jesus 2000 years ago, maybe celebrations played even a more significant part of life, since the people then faced a much harsher reality of toil and struggle, of oppression under foreign rulers and subjugation from heavy taxes. People of that time surely would not describe life as something comfortable and easy, as we could in contemporary America. Life entailed long days of hard work in the fields, day after day. No weekends off. No summer vacations or even any vacations.

I remember I witnessed such harsh reality of life when I lived in Kenya. For one week I stayed at the home of a dear African friend, and each day I would wake up at the crack of dawn, before everyone else. As I sat outside watching the sun rise, saying my prayers, and writing in my journal, I noted how everyone in this African compound woke up, one by one. Of course, the women were first to arise. They woke up and began chopping wood for the fire to cook the day’s meals. Then they went walking to the nearby river to collect water, and carry it back in barrels which they placed on their heads. Then began the typical day’s work of cooking, cleaning, and taking care of the compound, while constantly going back to the river to get more water for other chores throughout the day.

As I watched this scene unfold before my eyes, it suddenly struck me what a harsh and monotonous reality these Africa women face day after day. Every day, seven days a week. Every week, 52 weeks a year. No day off. No vacation. No change for years on end.  Only one thing broke the monotony and drudgery of such days, and that was the times of celebration. A birth. A wedding. A special feast like Christmas. Of course, these women still had to work hard on these days, yet they overcame the monotony of the day by celebrating in a special manner.

It’s no wonder why our Lord Jesus Christ used the analogy of a celebration to describe the Kingdom of Heaven. He wanted people to realize that the Kingdom of Heaven was not only comparable to the best of any earthly feasts we ever tasted, but in fact, far superseded such festivities, because the Kingdom of God is an eternal event – a joy greater than any joy one has ever tasted, a fellowship of love deeper than anything that one has ever experienced, and a happiness that never dissipates, because it marks the soul.

Imagine, for people who struggled to put food on their table, our Lord describes the Kingdom of God like a King’s feast and banquet-hall; and for people who faced the reality of monotony and harsh labor, Paradise is a never-ending celebration!

Here lies another essential part of the Good News of our Orthodox Christian Faith. Christianity is not a joyless, cheerless, boring religion  - a life of strictly following too many rules and regulations. The Gospel of Jesus Christ is glorious news about a celebration. As today’s Gospel reading reminds us, the kingdom of Heaven is about participating in the greatest celebration we’ll ever experience!

We get a sense of this celebration as we prepare for Christmas. The feast of Christmas epitomizes the spirit of good news and great joy. Joy from angels. Wonder from shepherds. A miracle in a manger. Gifts from the magi. Praise and adoration from all. And an overarching spirit of divine love which reaches from eternity into our present reality. All these words can barely describe the ineffable celebration of Christmas, and the spirit which God inaugurated into the world with His coming.

Deep within our souls, don’t we all want to experience this heavenly life of continual celebration? Don’t we all want to discover this everlasting promise of God’s blessed banquet?

Yet, today’s Gospel story not only tells us about God’s Kingdom as a celebration, but also warns us about the only thing that can prevent us from entering into this divine celebration, from this eternal love of God – and the only thing is ourselves! Jesus uses an analogy of a King inviting guests to come to his banquet hall, and yet shows how each guest makes an excuse for not attending. The first is too consumed with his work and business, and can’t get away. The second focuses on newly bought possessions, and can’t see past these. And the third allows family to stand before the King’s feast. The excuses aren’t evil in and of themselves – work, pleasure, and family – but each, when they become our priority in life lead us away from our entrance into the Lord’s heavenly celebration.

Maybe today we can each look at our own lives and ask ourselves – what place does work and career have in our lives? What priority do our hobbies, and our pursuit for pleasure play in our daily schedules? And what about family? As wonderful and beautiful as family may be, do we place it before God and His divine ways? As hard as it is to hear, Jesus taught that “anyone who loves father or mother, brother or sister, wife or children more than me isn’t worthy of me.”

Before our career, our pleasures, and our family, Christ say, “Seek first the Kingdom of God and His righteousness, and all these things will be added unto you!” For us to experience and enter into the greatest celebration of life, and to partake in this never-ending heavenly feast that begins here and now, we must first respond to His invitation! We must say YES to the one who calls out to us, “Come to me, all you who are weary and heavy laden, and I will give you rest.”

Today, let us all say yes, and allow nothing to stand between us and our Lord. For in the end, if we do this, we will begin celebrating in that heavenly banquet even here and now!

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