Our church held it’s annual festival last weekend. Now, I grew up in a respectable Southern Protestant household, so this was foreign to my childhood. If we wanted to ride marginally safe spinny rides, our only outlet was the county fair.
On its face, the festival is a pure sellout to the devil, raising money for the church school by selling cheap thrills, bingo and fried foods galore. It attracts all sorts of people, including several who I’m sure have never darkened the door of a church except to sneak into the bathroom. The carnies who work the rides seem particularly sketchy. To make it worse, it happens during Lent every year, without fail, when we’re supposed to be solemnly fasting, abstaining and atoning.
But our pastor of the last 20 or so years is a wise man, and while most people who are aware of the festival (and it draws from across the area) think it’s timed to be close to St. Patrick’s Day, not so, he insists. It’s timed each weekend to fall on the weekend of Laetare Sunday, which marks a sort of “halftime break” for Lent. While Sundays remain a feast day, even in Lent, the readings for this week are particularly joyful, reminding us that Lenten fasting is only for a season. This year, the Gospel was the Parable of the Prodigal Son (or the story of the Prodigal Father, which may be a more accurate name). And while listening to that Gospel for the millionth time, I realized that the festival was perhaps the most “Jesus-y” thing our parish does.
I don’t mean for a moment that our faith community doesn’t show lots of other glimpses of the body of Christ. We worship. We partner with the poor and oppressed, through our sister-parish relationship with a church in Haiti. We try to live out the challenge of Matthew 25 by feeding the hungry through local outreach efforts like St. Vincent DePaul. We learn together to grow in discipleship.
But at the beginning of the reading, before you get into the parable, you learn that what prompted Jesus’ telling of it was the grumbling of the Pharisees and scribes that Jesus “welcome sinners and tax collectors and eats with them.” And when the parable itself turns from the prodigal son come home to the do-good son who stayed behind, it says that what sets the “good son” off is “the sound of music and dancing” from the homecoming celebration.
Because we’ve been doing it so long, I suspect most people who might be offended by the lack of Lenten decorum in our festival have either made their peace or moved to another, more respectable parish. I’m sure there are still a few who grumble about the noise, the mess, or the parking. The rules of good Christian decorum would say that, if you want to come back to Mother Church, you should show up on Ash Wednesday, do some serious penance, maybe take a class or two, and when you’re “ready”, come back for good. And if you’re just trying to be respectable, at least make it to the dress-up services at Christmas and Easter.
But as surely as the love of the Prodigal Father short-circuits the reinstatement plan of the prodigal son and skips straight from indentured servanthood to the full homecoming of a lost son, so, I would argue, does our festival offer everyone the opportunity to celebrate a homecoming to our community, just as Jesus did when celebrating with sinners and tax collectors.
During the weekend, I sat next to a couple (playing Bingo) who said they weren’t members of the church “anymore”, but they still come back to festival each year because it’s fun and homey and reminds them of their connection to the place. I ran into another old friend who said she had fallen out of the habit of Church, once her kids had flown the nest, but she realized that it was important, and Festival was her first step back. Is Festival “enough” to be a part of God’s family? Common sense would say, no, you need to show up for Mass and throw something in the offering plate. But who are we to say?
Whether it’s the Pharisees of Jesus’ day or the “good Christians” of today, it seems to be an easy slip to let our zeal for righteousness translate into a “Gospel for the good enough,” a way of acting that implies (if not overtly states) that you have to meet some minimum standards to fall within the circle of God’s love. The music and the dancing and the celebration of homecoming reminds us that the Gospel isn’t for the good enough; it’s for all of us. Whether you come home to Festival to reconnect with family or friends, to ride rides, eat fried foods or dance to loud music, it all happens beneath the shadow of our church because we know that that’s our ultimate family, our ultimate home, and even when we’re “supposed to” be serious, our Prodigal Father is always ready to deep-fry the fatted calf and cue the band. That’s what the Father said to the older, “do-good” son. That’s what Jesus said to the scribes and Pharisees who “tut-tutted” him. That’s what our Church reminds all of us in it’s most Jesus-y moment.