by Dr. Kate Harrison Brennan
My husband and I are parents of a toddler. That means we need coffee like never before, and hope for the day when he will play quietly by himself before we have to get out of bed and make breakfast.
This week, it finally happened. Our son played happily, emptying baskets of trains onto the floor of the living room when he woke up, without us needing to get out of bed. I of course did not go back to sleep but listened to every sound, trying to make out what he was doing. After driving his trains across the floor, I heard him turn the key on the cabinet, rummage through its contents, bring things over to the dining table and then suddenly announce, “Party time, Monkey!”
I could not have been more proud.
I was out of bed by this point and saw his beloved Monkey (stuffed animal) at the table, our special birthday table decorations and candles all laid out. That’s my boy! I felt like we had doubly succeeded: we’d taught him to play quietly, and we’d taught him to love celebrating.
How hard is it to love a good a celebration? Surely everyone enjoys a good birthday party, right? I thought so, until I saw what’s become one of my favourite films, Hunt for the Wilderpeople, an adventure-comedy. In this modern Kiwi (New Zealand) classic, written and directed by Taika Waititi, an older farming couple who make do with not much other than a lot of love become foster parents to a young boy who’s a problem child from the city, Ricky Baker. In some ways, it’s a retelling of Christ’s parable of the Prodigal Son, except that Ricky is without biological parents and initially resists being welcomed home by his new foster family. His foster dad, Hector, is remote and cynical, but his foster mum, Bella, persists in loving and celebrating Ricky.
In one of the most touching scenes, Bella pulls out a small toy keyboard at the dinner table and, with birthday candles lit on Ricky’s homemade chocolate birthday cake, plays and sings her own birthday song for him:
“Ricky Baker now you are thirteen years old
You are a teenager and as good as gold
Once rejected now accepted
And Hector: a trifecta!”
Soon after this “too good to be true” celebration, tragedy strikes and the child welfare services arrive to try to take the boy away. Ricky escapes into the wilderness. Hector pursued to find him, and then to evade authorities together. This results in a national manhunt for both foster dad and son, and the two now don’t want to be separated.
It’s hard not to “ugly cry” through Bella’s heartfelt but completely amateur keyboard performance telling Ricky that he was ‘once rejected, now accepted,’ while Hector sits in a grump at the table. Just as it’s hard to accept what seems too good to be true when we read the parable of the lost son and the older brother in Luke 15 and hear we are called, ‘my son’ by the father and reassured, ‘you are always with me, and everything I have is yours.’ Jesus knows we need to hear love before we can hear the correction, ‘but we had to celebrate and be glad, because this brother of yours was dead and is alive again; he was lost and is found.’
Jesus told stories about celebration, loss and salvation with quirky details and surprising twists to help us see ourselves as part of the story. And Jesus showed us what it looks like to be fierce and courageous in celebrating salvation and the surrounding signs of hope and renewal, especially when others despair or feel the celebration of another will be a loss for them.
Anyone can go through the motions of celebrating. And anyone can follow the way of the foolish and the unbelieving saying, ‘eat, drink and be merry, for tomorrow we die’ (Isaiah 22:13; Ecclesiastes 8:15). But a wise woman will be courageous in her celebration. She will celebrate in such a way that lives out hope in the face of despair. She will give and receive extravagant love at the same time as being able to express terrible grief and loss. The heart of the Christian message reframes our otherwise meaningless pleasure and merrymaking as an expression of relationship with our Creator, redeeming the distance between what is created and what is eternal. For those of us who follow the God of joy, the One who gave up his son for our sake, our default mode is one of rejoicing.
Next time we have a family birthday, I want to model for our son—and all those who come to our table—one of our most urgent biblical and prophetic tasks: to celebrate with fierce hope and the same courage with which we grieve, because Jesus’ death and resurrection makes that not just possible, but necessary.
Dr Kate Harrison Brennan is CEO of Anglican Deaconess Ministries (ADM), a 127 year old Christian women’s foundation in Sydney, Australia. Kate is a Rhodes Scholar and former Advisor to Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard. ADM is on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.