These remarks were delivered at the Theopolis Epiphany Feast, held in Birmingham, Alabama, on January 29, 2021.
“How lonely sits the city that was once so full of people” (Lamentations 1:1).
“Then I will eliminate from the cities of Judah and from the streets of Jerusalem, says the Lord, the voice of joy and the voice of gladness, the voice of the groom and the voice of the bride; for the land will become a site of ruins” (Jeremiah 7:24).
“Babylon, the great city, is cast down with violence, and will never be found again. And the voice of harpists, musicians, flute players, and trumpeters will never be heard in you again; and no craftsman of any craft will ever be found in you again; and the voice of the mill will never be heard in you again; and the light of a lamp will never shine in you again; and the voice of the groom and bride will never be heard in you again” (Revelation 18:21-23).
Not so long ago, we had to imagine these scenes of apocalyptic silence. No longer. We’ve lived them. Our streets have been emptied. Restaurants are closed, parks and playgrounds sealed off with police tape. Weddings and funerals are reduced or canceled, concert halls and museums vacant. For many, Thanksgiving and Christmas never happened. For months, most churches stopped meeting, and some still haven’t fully opened. We’ve operated by one great commandment: Thou shalt not feast.
Incredibly, none of this happened because of an invasion or a military defeat. We did it to ourselves, voluntarily. Civilizations are soundscapes, filled with the clatter of work, laments for the dead, the laughter of weddings. We shut down civilization. We silenced ourselves.
We had to, many will answer. We had to shut everything down to preserve life. There is no wealth but life, and even if we have to lose everything to survive, it’s worth it.
Put to the side bitterly disputed questions about the virulence of the pandemic. The effort to preserve life by prohibiting the living of it doesn’t work. It can’t work. It would work if we were mere biological machines, who need nothing but air, food, water, sewage, and shelter. It would work if men and women were nothing but detached shards of humanity who can flourish in isolation, if communion were an optional extra. It would work if life were nothing more than food, and the body no more than clothing. It would work if we could save our life by merely preserving it.
That’s not how human life is designed. That doesn’t fit the real world. And when we try to force life into that mold, it backfires. We’ve sacrificed all the social and cultural activities that lend beauty and richness to life, things that make life more than bare biological survival. We sacrificed life to preserve life. In the name of love, we canceled love.
It’s bound to backfire. In our frenetic necrophobia, we flee death, avoiding contact with others, locking ourselves in our homes, obsessively washing our hands, avoiding public places and gatherings—all for the sake of survival. But a life without human touch, a life in which we never venture, a life without risk is no life at all, but a living death. To preserve bare life at all costs is suicide. To elevate bare life as the supreme value, we have to make the supreme sacrifice of life itself. And so we flee from death, and find ourselves rushing to death’s embrace, strangely comforted. Our necrophobia becomes necrophilia.
What we’re doing this evening is an act of defiance. We defy the silence, and dare to share together the voice of the harpists and flutists and trumpeters and pianists, the voice of the bridegroom and the voice of the bride, the voice of singers, the voice of laughter over a shared table. Here tonight, together, we form a circle of sound, light, and life. Here at least a city lives. We’re not here to defy this or that petty ordinance. We’re here, in the name and power of the Risen Lord Jesus, to defy death, including the living death of the silent city.
Festivity isn’t some extraneous add-on to life. A feast is the effective sign of life, the site where life is lived, life in communion with God and one another, life as shared joy, a sharing of food and drink that is also a sharing of ourselves with one another. Food exists to be saturated with personal communion, “to carry in itself the communication of one person to another” (Erik van Versendaal). And so we taste the goodness of one another, and the goodness of the Lord, through the goodness of these creatures of food and drink.
The world is food, a banquet of sights, sounds, aromas, tastes, textures, a table spread by our Creator for our mutual and common delight. This—what we are doing here, now—this is life. So, welcome to the feast. Welcome back to life. Eat, drink, laugh, talk, shout, sing, rejoice, live.
Peter J. Leithart is president of the Theopolis Institute.
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