And you shall consecrate the fiftieth year, and proclaim liberty throughout the land to all its inhabitants. It shall be a jubilee for you, when each of you shall return to his property and to his clan. That fiftieth year shall be a jubilee for you; in it you shall neither sow nor reap what grows of itself nor gather the grapes from the undressed vines. For it is a jubilee. It shall be holy to you. – Leviticus 25:9-12
Last Sunday, I attended a morning service at Pentecostal Tabernacle, a predominantly black church in Cambridge’s Central Square. Climbing the narrow steps from the coffee hour room, I heard what sounded like a homecoming pep rally: whistles, whoops, the thudding of feet. At the landing, still trying to reconcile this messy noise with the idea of church, I was swept into a pew by a beaming usher, set adrift in a wash of color and sound.
Men in suits danced through the aisles. Women in bright lipstick and broad hats raised their hands to the ceiling; free laughter mixed with their spiced perfumes. In front of me, an elderly man clasped delicate hands to his chest, gently rocking, smiling to himself. Families skipped to the front, placing their offerings in baskets. At the altar, a small cluster of singers bared broad smiles. Their leader fell to her knees. No more shackles, no more chains, no more bondage, I am free! she cried. She shook her wrists, demonstrating how the metal had snapped. In the pews, the congregation joined her. Bracelets jangled; eyes shut in reverent ecstasy.
Joy, at Harvard, often feels naive. We are acutely aware of the world’s problems—often we are the ones who try to solve them … or at least, we’re the ones reading the headlines. Police corruption draws thousands to a march in Washington. Another shooting occurs in my home state, Oregon. The troubling results of a sexual assault survey marr the pages of the Crimson. We know the world’s evil; insulated as we are in privileged brick, we can’t help but sense that things are not as they should be. And try as we might to combat badness with our own limited stores of compassion, we find we can only do so much. To feel joy would be, perhaps, to ignore all of this.
In my own heart, I feel this tendency towards solemnity, deep longing for a new (and better) earth. This past month, I felt the loss my grandfather, Bernie, slowly slipped away by prostate cancer; I was haunted by the tiresome ghosts of self-doubt and shame. I repented for the suffering I caused others: missed phone calls, careless declarations, selfish tears. There is much to ask forgiveness for, and to grieve for; Lord, Your Kingdom come.
Pentecostal Tabernacle knows just as well as we all do that suffering, repentance, and dissatisfaction are integral signposts along the Christian walk, along any walk. They are a reality of sin. And the shackles and chains in the songs of that congregation represent real pains, far greater perhaps than what you, or I, have known.
Yet still, they choose to celebrate. The Tabernacle has marked this year as a jubilee: a God-mandated season of thanksgiving outlined in the passage from Leviticus above. For an entire year, from autumn to autumn, Pentecostal Tabernacle will fixate on joy. They did last Sunday. In the morning announcements, a reader gave thanks for wedding anniversaries, no matter how uneven the number of years. A worshipper declared with glee that a member of the congregation had been released from a hospital bed. A guest pastor extolled the beauty of community bonds by swapping jokes with a man in the front row.
There were no hymns of longing; prayers began with thanksgiving, not desperation. It was the happiest church service I have ever attended; and it did not feel naive.
Joy, I must remind myself is a holy thing, pleasing to God. Without it, suffering, pain, and repentance are misguided; our experience of them can even be selfish, or self-defeating. Joy contextualizes; it is the recognition of what God has done and what He will continue to do.
And so, it is true that joy can feel petty at a place like Harvard, bogged down as we are by global and personal toils, struck by the poverty and lonesomeness in our own backyard—yet, today I proclaim to you joy is always profoundly deserved. There are the little things to give thanks for. In Leviticus’ jubilee, joy is comforting one’s neighbor, absolving debts, reaping a harvest. This semester, joy is flowers from a friend, left on my desk the day my grandfather died. Yet most importantly, above the day-to-day, joy is a man on a cross, a stone rolled away, a love stronger than death. It is the most real thing in the world—and it is worth something.
CS Lewis, as he often does, says it best:
Joy is the serious business of Heaven.
We all strive to call injustices and burdens as we see them; we try to heal and to carry heavy loads for our friends. Yet to refuel for the work that must be done, to triumph in the midst of our sorrow, we return to the table for a harvest meal; we laugh as we give our offerings. No more shackles, no more chains, no more bondage, I am free: free with joy in Christ; free to dance in the pews.
Let us pray.
Lord, I pray today in the spirit of joy. Remind us of the sovereignty of your goodness. Remind us of what we have to be thankful for, whether it is the Charles River in the sunlight or the handshake of a friend, or simply the fact that we get to take a breath today. Most of all, remind us of what you have done for us, in spite of this brokenness; of what you will continue to do for us. May we make joyful noise unto You, Lord; and may that noise empower us to meet sadness and pain and injustice where we see it. Let us not despair. In your Son’s name: Amen.
Kate Massinger ’16 is an English concentrator living in Kirkland House.