It was an ideal moment for the demons, a trap baited to ensnare us in our all-too-human religious pride.
Our Byzantine Catholic community had just finished the evening service for Good Friday, ritually enacting Jesus’ burial with a candlelit procession. Right across the street, meanwhile, revelers were kicking off the weekend-long “420 Festival,” celebrating Colorado’s legalization of marijuana.
During our outdoor procession, carrying the iconic burial shroud and singing the Trisagion hymn, it had not been difficult to ignore the pulsating music from nearby. And once we were back inside, to bow before the tomb and venerate Christ’s wounds, it had been even easier to forget the world outside.
The difficult moment, the moment of subtle spiritual danger, came after all this: when the service was finished, and the community dispersed. Nothing was left but the lingering aura of the liturgical day, a vague attunement to its solemnity; and the sound of the party just kicking off, growing louder, close by.
Walking to my car, I could hear the music again – it was louder now, ecstatic, coming from a stage where colored lights glowed and electronic melodies pulsated. A different world altogether, it seemed.
If one draws out the contrast, between the church and the drug-centered festival, he can scarcely avoid being tempted – in the literal, religious sense of the word: to a self-flattering comparison between the two sides of the street; or at least some acidic social commentary, a head-shaking lament for society . . .
Yet that is precisely the trap, the desire of the devil, the goal of the powers that seek to corrupt what is best in us. For us, in the name of piety, to exalt ourselves over others on this day of utmost humility: that is Hell’s desire, come in the name of religion; the demonic non serviam, disguised as the angelic serviam.
Baudelaire said Satan’s greatest trick is “to persuade you that he does not exist.” But I disagree. There is at least one greater trick: to bring the believer to the point where he expresses his pride through the language of piety. “God, I thank Thee that I am not like other men: extortioners, unjust, adulterers . . .”
In an instant, all of it – the Cross, the shroud, the tomb, the prayers and hymns invoking God’s mercy – could become weapons of pride, blunt instruments to bludgeon others, a set of emblems signifying our supposed superiority. That is a far greater trick of the devil than merely hiding himself from view.
The devil’s way with many Christians, is simply to get them to look down on others: to look across the street, at the partygoers on Good Friday, and take a merciless view. “What shamelessness! See how they crucify Christ again: with their indifference to God, their hedonism, their empty pleasures . . .”
Such thoughts can be tempting. But another thought came to me that night, and seized my attention, for which I credit the Holy Spirit and not myself. About the people at the 420 celebration, I thought this:
“If we cannot offer them a greater joy – even today, on Good Friday! – than they believe they have found there, then we will never bring them into the Church.”
But how is this to be done? Is it even true? Can we promise such people that there is more joy – not a greater quantity of superficial “happiness,” but a deeper fulfillment of the heart and soul – on this supremely solemn liturgical day, than in a weekend of chemical revelry?
Indeed, we must ask: do we believe it ourselves? Do we trust that there is a greater joy to be found even in asceticism and renunciation – in our bearing of the Cross – than in a self-indulgent, worldly lifestyle? Or are Lent and Holy Week things we simply “get through,” so we can celebrate later?
Joy, of course, is not mere happiness. To find the joy in all things, even painful and hard things, is a mark of sanctity; to be simply happy all the time is unhealthy and false. To “rejoice in the Lord always” is to trust and thank God perennially, in awareness of his steadfast love, regardless of our mood.
In this sense, there must certainly be more joy even in the darkness of Good Friday, than in anything offered by a drug-themed festival. We are more fortunate to suffer with God than to celebrate without him; for there can never be any greater fulfillment than to know God’s love, and love him in return.
Fr. Alexander Schmemann said this, about the Gospel’s paradoxical joy:
“From its very beginning Christianity has been the proclamation of joy, of the only possible joy on earth. It rendered impossible all the joy we usually think of as possible. But within this impossibility, at the very bottom of this darkness, it announced and conveyed a new all-embracing joy, and with this joy it transformed the End into a Beginning.”
It is one thing to believe this intellectually, and another thing to practice it.
That is the trouble. That is why we habitually fail in our evangelistic efforts: we fail to convey the joy of knowing Christ, because we have not based our own lives upon it. One cannot give what he does not have. How many of us have truly acquired the joy and peace of the Holy Spirit?
Saints are not superheroes or spiritual Olympians; a saint is an ordinary person who prefers God’s love above everything, and sees everything through the lens of that love. God is Love; a saint is simply one who accepts and lives in that Supreme Reality. But how many of us even aspire to be saints, in that sense?
It is not a question of trying harder; no amount of brute force will suffice to sanctify us. It is a matter of changing our perspective: recognizing that there is only one source of ultimate, lasting joy – “the love of God, which is in Christ Jesus” – and then seeking it always, in all things, even in the depths of suffering.
St. Paul had more joy in a Roman prison than I have in my comfortable, safe existence. If he were here today, I would trust him to preach to the pot-smokers, to tell them there is more peace and fulfillment in the Church’s mourning than in their celebration.
I would not readily trust myself to do it. I am not a reflection of the joy of the Gospel, not yet.
Easter Sunday was a gorgeous day in Denver, a day of rest after our traditional Byzantine Pascha celebration that began late Saturday night and stretched into Sunday morning. It was also the culmination of the 420 festivities downtown, with long lines at pizza shops and laid-back crowds in Civic Center Park.
I cannot look upon these two celebrations and see only a simplistic, black-and-white contrast between the righteous and the wicked. Nor can I see it as a matter of pure transcendent joy on the one side, and mere hedonism on the other. Both realities are more complex.
I believe that all people, in some form, have the experience of that profound joy which infinitely exceeds mere natural happiness. There are innate flaws and shortcomings in the human heart, limitations that no human effort can overcome; yet there is a longing for eternity, placed there by God himself, as well.
The joy of the Gospel is not something innate within us, or our world: the reality of Jesus breaks into our lives from the infinite Beyond, exceeding all reasonable expectations of the human mind. Yet there is a foretaste and an intimation of this joy, even in the lives of those who are ignorant or indifferent to him.
Christianity is the complete, definitive revelation of God and his love; but the experience of God is not limited to Christians, or even to those who believe in God. I have seen Christ-like mercy in the face of an agnostic; I know people who – notwithstanding the tired cliché – truly are “spiritual though not religious.”
No doubt there were such people among the stoned crowds at Civic Center Park. The present cultural landscape is not easy to evaluate, spiritually speaking.
Some critics treat modern Western culture simply as a Manichean battleground between stalwart faith and godless hedonism. But a different picture emerges from the inner lives of individuals.
Inwardly, many people are haunted by the powerful but fleeting experience of the transcendent – and especially by the experience of a joy that seems “not of this world.” They seek, in vain, for its fulfillment among the finite things of creation: sex and drugs, money and power, family and friends, music and art.
Such people do not need to hear a litany of moral grievances from us. They need to hear something more like St. Augustine’s advice in the Confessions (IV.12): “Seek what you seek, but not where you seek it.” Their most profound desire, planted within the heart by God, has been misdirected and gone astray.
Some of our substitutes for God are more disordered than others. But the fundamental problem is the same: we roam the world in search of that supreme joy whose scent we have caught, whose light we have glimpsed; but no finite thing provides more than a semblance of it for long.
Sin, of course, is a universal reality, and there is no question of viewing anyone – in the drug culture, or elsewhere – as a purely innocent victim of confusion. But as Thomas Merton noted, sin is an optimistic diagnosis: it presupposes that a corruption has entered into something originally and essentially good.
Something good, though profoundly corrupted, was at work among those who spent Good Friday and Easter celebrating marijuana.
I would like to show them that there is a better way: that there is a blessedness infinitely beyond all natural happiness and pleasure; that their mysterious desire – which cannot be satisfied by their chosen means, or any created thing – has a true object and an eternal satisfaction, found in God through Christ.
That is the joy of the Gospel. It is a message that can transform the world – as long as it first transforms us.