One of the first hymns I remember singing as a child, in our small rural church, was, “They will know we are Christians by our love.” Now, when I hear that familiar tune, part of me cringes with irritation at its age and the way it will get stuck in my head for days. (You’re welcome.)
At the same time, the song brings great nostalgia with it, a warm confirmation of a basic truth of the gospel that makes most things make sense at the end of the day. My spirituality is not most successful when I have all the right answers, when I avoid the most sins or when I am most sure of God’s presence. My faith is the greatest gift when I have loved long and well and received that love from others.
In the first months of his pontificate, Pope Francis was quoted warning Christians to shed their sour faces. People laughed at the thought and grew in love for this gentle and authentic man of faith. And then they were convicted by him. How often are we caught in judgment, casting stones at others while we ignore our own failings? How frequently do we fail to love in favour of self-righteousness? And how well do our friends and neighbours know us as people of joy?
In this sixth week of Easter we have reached the point in the liturgical season where our joy outlasts the season of Lent. Are there any remnants of the Easter celebration left in your home or your life? Three lessons are offered for us in the Gospel for picking up that Easter joy for another week or two before Ordinary Time: celebration, love, and joyful service.
The first reading is a beautiful example from Acts of the joy that the first believers had as Christianity started to grow. Peter is preaching to a group of Christians that includes both gentile and Jewish converts to Christianity. The Jewish converts have been accustomed to their own people being part of the faith community, and when gentiles convert, speak in tongues and worship God, they are amazed and grateful. The whole community celebrates this gift of faith, and Peter challenges the Jewish Christians: “Can anyone withhold the water for baptizing these people who have received the Holy Spirit just as we have?” Then let’s celebrate this gift of resurrection. We need to do an inventory of our celebration practices. How often do we truly celebrate and enjoy what is good? Do we recognize God’s blessings, express gratitude for them and then be generous with others as we invite them to share our joy?
I grew up in a family that taught me the value of hard work and discipline, for which I am immensely grateful. It was not until I married, however, that I discovered my family had some growing to do when it came to celebration. My in-laws are amazing at marking significant occasions with joy. They put out the special dishes for an ordinary supper and propose a toast when someone gets a new job. They wrote to the whole extended family when I published my first book. They stop and really enjoy the moment that is before going on to the next task or project. Our marriage has been a great opportunity for introducing more celebrating in my family too.
The second reading invites us to love, deeply and freely, as God loves. This invitation has two parts: first, it presumes that we find loving difficult, and second, it suggests that love is a gift we receive to give away. In this Easter season, we have a chance to practice love with joy, even when it is hard. We do this by increasing our willingness to receive God’s love.
A couple of years ago I was on retreat when I stumbled upon a rather uncomfortable belief I didn’t know I had. I realized that I thought I had to earn God’s love and I was living out of all my failures, refusing to accept love (and forgiveness) until I thought I had earned it, which was never. So, even though God, and my friends and family, and perfect strangers were pouring love out all over and around me, I refused to receive it, to take it in and let it fill me up. Loving people is hard work, and it is worth it because God has loved me at great cost to himself, with great benefit: I am capable of loving because God has loved me. What are the little acts of love we can practice during Easter that carry the gift of God’s love to others through us? Is there someone who needs a visit or a pot of soup? Is there some project you have been meaning to get to that could be done with love for someone who is waiting?
The last lesson is from Jesus, a reminder that celebrating and loving lead us to joy. Joy does not fall from heaven like magic, at least not most days; it is a result of our disciplined practice of celebrating and loving. Jesus is preparing the disciples for his ascension. If we follow him, and our lives are transformed by the daily practices of faith, our lives will be changed, and we will know his presence among us, even when we cannot see him. If we want people to recognize us by our love, by our joy, then we have to practice love and joy. Take delight in people. Laugh until your sides ache. Eat something wonderful and savour every bite. Call someone you have been thinking about and talk until the conversation comes to a natural end.
It’s not a cliché that they will know us by our love, by our peace, by our joy. They will know that Jesus makes all the difference in our lives when he actually does. Lent is 40 days and most of our neighbours know about it. Easter is 50 days, and most of our neighbours have no idea that we’re still singing, “He is risen!” There are still a few more days left in this Easter season. Let’s show them that our joy is still spilling over.
Perrault is the director of Pastoral Services for the Diocese of Saskatoon. She is co-author of How Far Can We Go? A Catholic Guide to Sex and Dating. She and her husband, Marc, are the parents of three young children.