Diversion And Delight
The needs of the world are such that sometimes even retiring for a little time seems an unjustifiable luxury.
“The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught” (Mk 6:30)
According to the Acts of the Apostles, the first homily ever in the history of Christianity was delivered by Peter on the day of Pentecost, just after the Holy Spirit descended on the apostles. One of the main aspects of Luke’s memorable description of this episode, is the apostles’ irrepressible excitement. The scene must have looked like the courtyard of a kindergarten: children oblivious of the world around them, fully intent on their games, laughing, cheering and shrieking. I am always amazed at the amount of energy that radiates from these courtyards whenever I pass by one of them. This sits well with children, but slightly less with grown up self-possessed Middle Eastern fishermen and their rigid code of masculinity: a “proper” man should not get animated like a little boy. No wonder then that people who saw this scene should be highly perplexed, and mock the apostles saying: “They are filled with new wine” (Acts 2.12f).
And it gets better – with the amusing topic of Peter’s speech just after the scene I have described:
Peter, standing with the eleven, lifted up his voice and addressed them: “People of Judea and all who dwell in Jerusalem, let this be known to you, and give ear to my words. For these people are not drunk, as you suppose, since it is only the third hour of the day. (Acts 2.14f).
Yes, you heard right: the first sermon ever pronounced in the history of Christianity is about excusing tipsy clergy. This level of exhilaration is permissible in children but unsuitable to the founders of any respectable religious movement. And yet this is the template that the New Testament deliberately gives to all future Christian communities: not a lecture hall, but a playschool.
“Truly, I say to you -Jesus declares in the Gospel- unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven” (Mt 18.3).
Indeed, whoever is familiar with the New Testament and with most of first and second century Christian literature is struck by the recurrence of this theme: the dominant feeling is one of unending possibility, the sense that something new, unheard of, had appeared in history – and a genuine, uncontainable thrill.
In the course of Christian history, however, even a novelty of this magnitude has been normalized. True, we might still spot tipsy clergy occasionally, but the likelihood is that this sight won’t be accompanied by the flames of the Holy Spirit descending on their heads. We tend to lose the excitement about our faith and forget what change it has brought to our lives and to the history of the world. Hence Paul’s lyrical reminder in his letter to the Ephesians:
Remember -he says- that you were at that time without Christ, aliens from the commonwealth of Israel, and strangers to the covenants of promise, having no hope and without God in the world. (Eph 2.12)
Without Christ, having no hope and without God in the world. The poignancy of this description resonates with anyone who has ever gone, as I have in my teens, through periods of life in which they lost their faith. As long as we are not aware of this loss, this absence, this hopelessness in our lives, we can even pride in our disenchantment, like adults who know better than putting their trust in fairy tales. Or we can simply ignore the inner, deep, existential discomfort of ultimate hopelessness. It’s like being ill at home and numbing our boredom and soreness by binging on Netflix. We binge on diversions, become accomplished practitioners of what the French philosopher Blaise Pascal famously described under the heading of divertissement, the art of keeping ourselves entertained every waking second of our life as a way of ignoring the futility of our human condition:
"Hence it comes -says Pascal in his Pensées- that play and the society of women, war, and high posts, are so sought after. Not that there is in fact any happiness in them, or that men imagine true bliss to consist in money won at play, or in the hare which they hunt; we would not take these as a gift. We do not seek that easy and peaceful lot which permits us to think of our unhappy condition, nor the dangers of war, nor the labour of office – [what we truly seek is] the bustle which averts these thoughts of ours, and entertains us". (Thoughts 139)
For anyone intent on divertissement, nothing is to be avoided more studiously than loneliness:
'Hence it comes that men so much love noise and stir; hence it comes that the prison is so horrible a punishment; hence it comes that the pleasure of solitude is a thing incomprehensible. And it is in fact the greatest source of happiness in the condition of kings, that men try incessantly to divert them, and to procure for them all kinds of pleasures'. (Thoughts 139)
Pascal’s divertissement is the exact opposite of the Apostles’ exhilaration described by the book of Acts and this contrast is touchingly captured by the page from the Gospel of Mark we have just heard.
After a couple of years in which all the disciples had done was follow Jesus, marvel “at the gracious words that were coming from his mouth” (Lk 4.22) and be filled with astonishment and sometimes fear at his power (cf Mk 4.41), at one point they were finally given ability to speak and act with the same impact and authority: “Jesus called the twelve and began to send them out two by two, and gave them authority over the unclean spirits . […] So they went out and proclaimed that people should repent. And they cast out many demons and anointed with oil many who were sick and healed them”. (Mk 6.7-13).
True, they had a long way to go: they still needed to learn that they were given this authority to serve and not to lord over people, that they would be like lambs among wolves and should put their trust not in themselves but in God. But even just for a little and however imperfectly, this first mission gave them a taste of the kind of change and novelty they would be given mission to bring to the world, the hope they could inspire in people, the healing they could minister to the those in need. No surprise then that, as we heard at the beginning of today’s gospel, they should be so thrilled when they came back from this first mission. Mark describes them like children who return from a daytrip and besiege their parents with enthusiastic and detailed tales of their experience: “The apostles gathered around Jesus, and told him all that they had done and taught” (Mk 6:30)
In Luke’s description of the same scene the excitement is such that Jesus feels the need to temper and re-direct it a little: “The seventy-two returned with joy, saying, “Lord, even the demons are subject to us in your name!” And he said to them, “Do not rejoice in this, that the spirits are subject to you, but rejoice that your names are written in heaven.”(Lk 10.17-20).
This is not an invitation to overcome the exhilaration but to feed it with a better motivation: if God is for us, who can be against us – […] nothing will ever separate us from the love of God (cf. Romans 8.31-39). Christian joy does not rely on divertissement, on being entertained, and on diversion, but grows by meditating on what great difference it makes to be “with Christ, with hope, and with God in the world”. Christian joy relishes opportunities to pause and refocus on the presence and action of God in our lives.
Thus, while Pascal told us that those intent on divertissement abhor loneliness, we see the disciples more than happy to welcome Jesus’ invitation: "Come away to a deserted place all by yourselves and rest a while." (Mk 6.31).
The compulsion of distraction admits nothing that might even remotely threaten to break its spell. On the contrary, the delight brought by faith appreciates and indeed needs times of silent prayer, retreat, and peace because the Christian sense of accomplishment does not depend on achievements, status, success, numbers – but on knowing that we are held, loved, and sustained by the Lord. We should observe that the apostles are not invited to loneliness, they do not go to the desert alone, but with Jesus. This means that this time in the desert is not a void but it is filled with God’s presence.
The needs of the world are such that sometimes even retiring for a little time seems an unjustifiable luxury. Many people are reluctant to take a break not because they are afraid of loneliness, but out of a sense of guilt. I heard this many times from people who look after a sick relative, or parents with regards to their children: taking time away from them seems selfish.
These times of withdrawal however are not a dereliction of responsibility but the exact contrary: they are absolutely vital opportunities to replenish our energies so as to be able to resume our dedication to others more effectively and joyfully. Drained and exhausted helpers often end up doing more damage than good. “God loves a cheerful giver”, says Paul (2 Co 9.7). The secret of this level of cheerfulness is in not losing the connection with its source, thanks to our times of withdrawal with the Lord. This is what we see in this page of the Gospel: the withdrawal to the desert with Jesus results in an even greater compassion, that is a deeper ability to be touched by other people’s needs. We heard that seeing the people who had come to find him, Jesus “had compassion for them, because they were like sheep without a shepherd; and he began to teach them many things” and we are told that all who touched even just the fringe of his cloak where healed (Mk 6.56).
We are with Christ, with hope, and with God in the world. Let us never become used to this good news, never be tempted to tone down the hopefulness and exhilaration it yields. The world will think us naïve, or maybe even tipsy at times – but I am sure that this will hardly ever deter any of us here today!