The Diocese of Milwaukee recently hosted her first-ever Acolyte Festival, and it was my great joy to serve on the leadership and organization team. (The team exhibited as much fun and commitment as any team I've ever served on.) The event itself went amazingly well. I'm told something like a hundred folks attended. The youngest was six. The oldest was north of seventy-five. The day itself was full of singing, laugher, and Bucky Badger, culminating with the Holy Eucharist - over which our bishop presided and which featured one of the most marvelously long processions I've ever witnessed - at the end. The Rev. Tom Warren, priest of the Diocese of East Carolina and our guest speaker for the day, framed our day with candor and humor (which are of course not unrelated), and also with love for our Lord.
In the first morning session, Tom guided us along our theme, "Serve the Lord with gladness" (Ps. 100:2), and one of Tom's many great and honest observations was that we sometimes serve the Lord with other things. Following his lead, the acolytes supplied a great list of other things we sometimes serve with, including - but not limited to - eagerness, tiredness, ambition, sadness, excitement, and boredom.
So there it was, said out loud for honest ears to hear: the reality that joy and gladness, in the service of the Gospel, are not givens. And yet, in the simple naming of this truth, this community of acolytes was also given a permission, it seemed, to name that, somewhere in the simultaneously mysterious and quotidian responsibilities that belong to acolytes, many - most - had encountered the joy and gladness that belongs to devoted followers of the risen Christ.
A highlight of the day for me came in the context of the Eucharist, in that moment just following the Gospel. In lieu of a sermon, small groups from every age group were invited to share their responses reflecting on what acolyting meant to them and their relationship with God. One group of youths stood together and talked about the deep friendships that the service of acolyting had literally made possible between them. Another group talked about the new perspectives - literal and figurative - serving around the altar had opened up for them around the life of faith. Craig, a young man with Down Syndrome, gave an impromptu - and deeply moving - benediction over the Assembly. The response of one woman still rings in my ears. She stood up quietly and thanked God for acolyting, which she called "a service of joy."
In the days before my ordination to the priesthood, I went searching for priestly prayers to say at the time, prior to the service, in which one puts on the vestments. Vesting prayers. Of course, vesting prayers vary, but most are recognizably related. In the set of prayers I use, there are seven petitions. Most of the petitions share some form of the rhythm, "God, give me this, so that I may obtain that." And the interesting thing is that the only that that repeats (for which we pray twice) is joy.
Why do we clergy need a double-petition for joy?
I can imagine plenty of cynical and/or practical answers to that question, but surely the primary answer is that for this Christ has come, that "my joy may be in you, and that my joy may be complete" (Jn 15:11). Generous participation in the joy of Christ is the heart of the Gospel. By "generous," I mean a participation that is not rivaled, but is rather perfected, by the participation of others. Joy of this kind sings the abundance of the Resurrection Life. So Karl Barth can write, “Laughter is the closest thing to the grace of God," and also, "Grace exists...only where the Resurrection is reflected."
Emphatically, this emphasis on Resurrection doesn't mean that we abstain from joy even in Lent and/or Holy Week. In one of the two Proper Prefaces assigned to Lent, we learn to pray
You bid your faithful people cleanse their hearts, and prepare with joy for the Paschal feast; that, fervent in prayer and in works of mercy, and renewed by your Word and Sacraments, they may come to the fullness of grace which you have prepared for those who love you (emphasis mine).
We do not prepare only for joy, says the prayer, but even with joy. Even in the midst of wandering, suffering, in the face of death. In this way, we discover the beginning of the new and unending life Christ has made possible for us, even now: a joy that recalls the longing of the psalmist to be a fruitful tree with vibrant leaves, planted along streams of water; a joy that is not an abstract or unrelated reward for cleansing, but which is illumined in the very moment and space of our cleansing as the return to the One for which we were made, the realization of our deepest longing: to be loved and held by the living God. This joy is at the same time the gift of the Love for which we had long hungered and the unexpected possibility that never stops surprising our hearts.