What to celebrate?

Today is the Feast of St. Joseph the Worker, which is a feast day the Church initiated in by Pope Pius XII in 1955 as a counter-celebration to the communists’ May Day.

This day always brings me back to Josef Pieper’s wonderful little book In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity. A few years ago, I also delivered a paper on this topic titled, “Festivity and Freedom in the Philosophical Anthropology of Josef Pieper and Joseph Ratzinger.”

Josef Pieper liked to ask, “What is a feast?” and “What makes a festival?” He begins, “But does not celebrating a festival simply mean the equivalent of having a good time? And does not everyone know what that is? Perhaps so–but again a few questions arise. What is a good time?”

He goes on to explain that the answer depends upon what is the nature of the human person. I think we can see now that many people are at a loss of what to celebrate. With many restrictions in place, plans quashed, relationships strained, money lost, etc., etc., it seems to many that it’s simply not possible to be having a good time.

But to others, it’s very possible. And to these others, it’s not possible for material reasons but rather for spiritual ones – these others have grasped that, as Pieper puts it, a feast is a phenomenon of existential richness.

And from whence (or from Whom) does this existential richness come?

Pieper explains: “Underlying all festive Joy kindled by a specific circumstance there has to be an absolutely universal affirmation extending to the world as a whole, to the reality of things, and to the existence of man himself… For man cannot have the experience of receiving what is loved, unless the world and existence as a whole represent something good and therefore beloved to him. […] To celebrate a festival means: to live out, for some special occasion and in an uncommon manner, the universal assent to the world as a whole.”

Josef Pieper thought that festivity lives on affirmation and that “even celebrations for the dead […] can never be truly celebrated except on the basis of faith that all is well with the world and life as a whole.”

In both Joseph Ratzinger and Josef Pieper’s anthropology of festivity, our ability to rejoice depends on the goodness of God’s creation and its restoration to wholeness by Christ’s act of redemption. Being in God’s image, we are called to celebrate and rejoice, to echo, “It is good.” For this reason, the spirit of prayer, liturgy, and Christian life in general is affirmation. As St. Paul said to the Corinthians, the Son of God whom he preached was “not Yes and No; but in him it is always Yes. For all the promises of God find their Yes in him.” He is the reason for the feast and makes possible our every yes in freedom and truth to life and love.

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