You Shall Rejoice In Your Festival

Why do we need a command to rejoice in our religious festivals? Simply look out at the sea of faces in the average congregation on a Sunday morning. God instructed the people through Moses, regarding the three major Jewish festivals of Passover, Weeks, and Booths, “You shall rejoice in your festival.”1 I pondered these words that last time they appeared in the Office of Readings, and I also took a moment to study the features of the people. Something was wrong. One of these things was not like the other. There is no denying these were good people sitting in the pews that morning. But their faces were reminiscent of the statuary of Egyptian tombs: expressionless and immovable, staring straight ahead. Even if something accidentally humorous occurs in Church, the vast majority do not crack the hint of a smile. Is this normal? When people are concentrating or recollected in prayer, I understand that they may only appear to be serious or angry. I also appreciate that the Latin rite is noted for its sobriety and calm grandeur, not charismatic hand-waving. But does a proper and reverent celebration of the Eucharist necessarily require the funerary mask of worship?

First, a bit of background. In my diocese, people may choose from a vast array of parish worship styles, from the Latin Mass of the Priestly Fraternity of St. Peter, to the more charismatic liturgies of the flagship parish of the Companions of the Cross. I am currently stationed at a downtown basilica that serves the entire diocese, and whose traditional liturgies are, for many, a refuge from a certain liturgical liberalism or experimentation they may have encountered in their local parish. The cross-section of our parish population might be more “traditionalists” in terms of emotional reserve in worship; at the same time, our people are simply a clearer example of a widespread notion in the Church, that reverence requires emotional repression. Sadly, this mistaken belief is also literally a killjoy. Something needs to change if we are to truly rejoice in our religious festivals, and to witness more natural and authentic joy in our Eucharistic celebrations.

For the Jewish people of the Old Testament, one motive for rejoicing was in response to the lavish love and gracious deeds of the Lord: to remember that He had delivered them from slavery in Egypt, and freely given them the Promised Land with fine, large cities they did not build, with houses full of goods of all sorts that they did not garner, and with vineyards and olive groves that they did not plant. 2 “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt, and carry out all these statutes carefully.”3 “Since the Lord, your God, has blessed you in all your crops and in all your undertakings, you shall have nothing but joy.”4

In seeking to appreciate the integration of emotion into liturgy in the early Church, I was enlightened by Matthew Elliott’s study “Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament.” He observes that in the New Testament “worship includes genuine emotion based on genuine understanding.”5 He suggests that the New Testament writers manifest a “cognitive theory” of emotions, not denigrating them as irrational passions, but appreciating them as essential aspects of our knowledge of self, and our interpretation of our experience.

This balanced approach is mirrored in the letters of St. Paul, in his comments to the Corinthians about praying in tongues, “I want to pray with my spirit, and also to pray with my mind. I want to sing with my spirit and with my mind as well.”6 When the human spirit is moved by the Holy Spirit, it is not only specific charismatic gifts that can be unleashed, but also normal human emotions that are expressed. Praying and singing with the spirit includes emotion. St. Paul’s original point was the necessity of having someone to interpret whatever is spoken in tongues. But he is acknowledging that it is normative and valid to pray and sing with the spirit and the emotions. He expresses a similar sentiment to the Thessalonians: “do not quench the Spirit”7 which also suggests “do not completely suppress all display of emotion.” For some of the early Christian communities, the danger was praying with too much spirit and emotion, failing to filter experience through the rational mind. For most of the Western world today, the pitfall is the complete opposite: praying only with the mind, with an almost complete neglect of the Spirit and the emotions.

In his modern classic of liturgical worship, Why Catholics Can’t Sing, Thomas Day points out how deeply the American Catholic experience has been conditioned by the ethos of Irish Catholic immigrants. Day notes how the Irish psyche was influenced by centuries of political and religious oppression by the British Protestants. Consequently, Catholic worship had to be “discreet, even secret.”8 When Catholics heard the sound of bells, hymns, pipe organs, and choral anthems, they issued from the Protestant churches. The Catholic faith, by contrast, was purer, and “unadulterated by amusements.”9 This liturgical observation is informative but does not fully explain the result that “mainstream Catholics in this country were inordinately proud of their self-control, their repression.”10

In their travels, most Catholics have experienced variety in liturgy, offering a perspective on this “repression” in order to assess how much of it is cultural and resistant to change, and how much is theological and must be challenged. Many can testify to certain peak moments in worship when they have felt the presence of the Spirit, evoking an emotional response. Perhaps, they were surprised by joy on a regular Sunday at their own parish, or on retreat, or while visiting a shrine. I have experienced this phenomenon both through the restrained sobriety of the Roman rite, and through more free-flowing charismatic forms of worship.

I recall the first time I encountered the sublime liturgies of the monastic communities in Jerusalem at the Church of Sainte Trinit­é in Rome (then later, at Saint Sacrament in Montreal). The monks and sisters of the community enriched the psalm response with practiced male-female harmonies springing from the oblation of their hearts. The presider sang the entire First Eucharistic Prayer with precision combined with true reverence and devotion. My “peak experience” only lasted a moment, but it was so very real. I recall being seized by the clear and distinct desire to go to heaven! And believe me—that almost never happens to me! Adoration in spirit and truth need not be noisy, intrusive, nor ostentatious. If the divine liturgy is celebrated worthily by converted hearts, it has the power not only to lift our spirits upward, but also move our hearts with a profound emotional resonance.

In our diocese, Catholic Christian Outreach (the FOCCUS of Canada) hosts bi-monthly holy hours with guitar and piano-led praise and worship music. It attracts over a hundred enthusiastic university students. Precisely because of the palpable presence of the Spirit, many priests share how much they enjoy hearing confessions at these mini-retreats. Sometimes, we collectively lament that this Spirit seems to be lacking in the Sunday Eucharist in our parishes. Why? Because of the hundred youth present, approximately ninety percent really want to be there, and the overwhelming majority know Christ as a living Person with whom they have a relationship, which they express in worship.

What is the common denominator underlying the traditional Masses of the monastic communities of Jerusalem, and the charismatic worship of Catholic Christian Outreach? Worship in spirit and truth, with the understanding that liturgy is not, in essence, a human effort to produce a religious spectacle for human consumption, but for all of us to enter into a mystery, to encounter a Person who is taking the initiative by coming to meet us. “Blessed is He who comes in the name of the Lord.” This simple point is so pivotal that unless priests and people are open to a deeper conversion, a new way of seeing, an interior revolution, and divesting of previously held opinions, no tweaking or window-dressing, no human projects or even musical restorations, will succeed in renewing the liturgy, or producing feelings of joy.

The Newborn King is here. The Risen Christ is coming to meet us! Do we have any idea what that really means? Apparently not, as witnessed by the absence of joy in so many Eucharistic “celebrations”! To rejoice in our festivals, I think we need to re-evaluate our understanding of liturgy. Etymologically, it means “work of the people” but this must never allow us to lose sight of the much greater “work of God.” In the liturgy, we work to prepare the way of the Lord, but we do not produce the Spirit. We clear the ground for sowing, but the Lord makes the sun to shine and the rain to fall. We prepare the bread and wine, the altar and sacred vestments. Then we call upon the Holy Spirit to descend, to come upon the gifts and make them the Body and Blood of Christ. It is God Himself who shows up to visit and redeem His people. All of us—priests and lay people— need a conversion and education leading to an expectation that in the liturgy the risen Christ is coming to meet us.

How is it possible for us to experience an encounter and communion with the human-divine Person of Christ and remain emotionless? If we had been among the first disciples who met Christ in the flesh when He walked the earth, would we have concluded that showing Him proper reverence would entail repressing all emotion, steadfastly refusing to meet His smile with a smile, or His tears with tears? Or do we not really believe that the same Person who walked the earth is the One Present in the Eucharist?

St. Luke reports in one instance that Jesus rejoiced in the Holy Spirit and exclaimed, “I thank you, Lord, Father of heaven and earth . . .”11 The writer of the letter to the Hebrews reminds us that “in the days of his flesh, Christ offered up loud cries and tears.”12 If we expect to model our lives on that of Christ, our worship of God must allow for natural bodily expressions of both sadness and joy. The more seriously we reflect on the present attitudes and customs that accompany most of our liturgies in the Western Church, the more we are obliged to inquire into the depth of our faith in Christ Himself. Do we really know Him for the Divine-Human Person He is? I wonder if Christ might address us in the same words He once directed at one of his apostles, “Have I been with you all this time, Philip, and still you do not know me?”13

It is worth noting that self-knowledge, and knowledge of Christ, go hand-in-hand. If we were to unilaterally deny or suppress certain emotions, we would be cutting ourselves off from full communion with the humanity of Christ, the bridge to His divinity, and the way to the Father. American psychologist, Pete Walker, reminds us that “repression of one end of the emotional continuum often leads to a repression of the whole continuum, and the person becomes emotionally deadened . . . For just as without night there is no day, without work there is no play, without hunger there is no satiation, without fear there is no courage, without tears there is no joy, and without anger, there is no real love.”14

Recall Thomas Day’s observation of certain Catholics being “inordinately proud of their self-control, their repression.” It is actually a universal human temptation—the tendency to close our eyes to reality, to suppress our grief and other unpleasant emotions, so that we can live with the illusion of control over our lives. But we pay a terrible, terrible price. A veil overshadows our minds, gradually rendering us oblivious to our need to be saved by Christ. Our humanity is suffocated and impoverished. Our religion becomes intellectual, abstract, and unreal. Christ becomes a myth, and we become practical atheists, even though we may dutifully fulfill our Sunday obligation.

One solution is remembrance, repentance, and return. “Remember that you were once slaves in Egypt . . .” Remember the Exodus, remember the death and Resurrection of Christ, made present in the Eucharist, “Do this as my anamnesis, in memory of me.” Such remembrance is not the recollection of historical facts, but of our personal repentance and return to the contemporary presence of God. “Rend your hearts not your garments, and return to the Lord your God.”15

Rending our hearts and beating our breasts entail  a return to the biblical heart, the seat of emotions, and the dwelling place of God. Jesus understood the disease of the human condition and testified, in the words of the prophet Isaiah, “The hearts of this people have grown dull.”16 In the Gospel, Jesus also spoke of repentance in terms of recovering our humanity, “Unless you turn and become like children, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.” Jesus told the little children to come to Him, took them in His arms, and blessed them. He delighted in the spontaneous expression of the children’s humanity, and their unabashed display of emotion.

The most child-like of all the apostles may have been the beloved disciple, who rested his head on the Heart of Christ at the Last Supper. In that temple, he inquired into the hidden wellsprings of grief and joy in the human Heart of the Son of God. The same grace that strengthened him to stand by the Cross, sharing His master’s sorrow, opened his heart to exult with joy in the risen Christ, exclaiming by the sea of Galilee, “It is the Lord!”17 Spiritual joy naturally overflows to others, so St. John was impelled to share what he had received, “We are writing these things so that our joy may be complete.”18

Each of us must find a way to rest on the bosom of Christ, to recover for ourselves some of the depths of the contemplative and mystical tradition of Christianity and Catholicism, in order to be docile and receptive to the living Person present in our liturgies. Then, we can truly rejoice in our festivals like the Jewish people, the apostles, and the early Christians. St. Peter further assures us that even without seeing Christ in the flesh, the same joy can be ours, as he wrote to the first communities in Asia Minor: “Although you have not seen him, you love him, and rejoice with an indescribable and glorious joy.”19

Finally, God commands us to rejoice, not only for our own sake, but also for the mission of the Church in the New Evangelization. In Pope Francis’ Apostolic Exhortation, The Joy of the Gospel, he cites the memorable words of Paul VI on the same theme. “Our technological society has succeeded in multiplying occasions of pleasure, yet has found it very difficult to engender joy.”20 In such a cultural environment, the Christian witness to authentic, spontaneous joy will be perceived by our secular contemporaries as a nearly miraculous phenomenon. What St. Paul once wrote of the power of prophecy in the Corinthian Church can equally be applied to the witness of joy in our times. If an unbeliever enters the assembly, and is at once struck by Christians’ palpable joy in the Risen Christ, he will not simply open a hymnal, smile and sing along; he will, indeed, worship God, crying out, “God is truly among you.”21

  1.  Deut 16:14
  2.  Deut 6:10-11
  3. Deut 16:12
  4. Deut 16:15
  5. Elliott, Matthew A., “Faithful Feelings: Rethinking Emotion in the New Testament,” (Grand Rapids, MI: Kregel, 2006), p. 178.
  6. 1 Cor 14:15
  7. 1 Thess 5:19
  8. Day, Thomas, “Why Catholics Can’t Sing,” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013), p. 20.
  9. Day, Thomas, “Why Catholics Can’t Sing,” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013), p. 21.
  10. Day, Thomas, “Why Catholics Can’t Sing,” (New York: The Crossroad Publishing Company, 2013), p. 15.
  11. Lk 10:21
  12. Heb 5:7
  13. Jn 14:9
  14. Walker, Pete, Complex PTSD: From Surviving to Thriving, (USA: An Azure Coyote Book, 2013), p. 30-31.
  15. Jl 2:13
  16. Mt 13:15
  17. Jn 21:7
  18. 1 Jn 1:4
  19. 1 Pet 1:8
  20. Pope Francis, Evangelii Gaudium, (Vatican City: Libreria Editrice Vatican, 2016) #7.
  21. 1 Cor 13:25
Fr. Tim McCauley About Fr. Tim McCauley

Fr. Tim McCauley is a priest of the Archdiocese of Ottawa, Canada. He was received into the Catholic Church in Brooklyn, N.Y. in 1995, and ordained in 2002. He has served in several parishes, as well as being a vocation director and a chaplain at Carleton University, in Ottawa. He is currently a priest in residence at St. Patrick Basilica in Ottawa.


  1. Avatar Bernadette Fakoory says:

    This was really a very interesting observation of the atmosphere surrounding Catholics in attendance at mass.

    I do not however, think that the charismatics and their emotional outburst during certain parts of the mass such as in the clapping while singing or going the length of the church to shake everyone’s hands add any reverence awe or authenticity to the proper form and celebration of the mass.

    The problem as I see it is that the priest are trying too hard to be innovative and are trying to compete with each other in their struggle to bring the masses back into fellowship withGod.

    In my humble view a priest stirs the hearts and minds of their parishioners by effectively imparting the word of God during the sermon. The priest most of the times stray from the gospel message. For a priest to stir the heart of his parishioners He has to have experienced a deep personal relationship with God. The priest by His simplicity ,compassion and concern for the well being and redemption for each parishioner convinces them that He is walking in the Spirit of God.

    In conclusion the point is Catholics are not all at the same place.For that matter not all cardinals,bishops priests are agreement about their catholic beliefs and practices.