Once we move beyond childhood the Christmas season is a bittersweet experience. That may be why for some of us the season of Advent looms larger now: preparation matters more the day of Christmas itself. Some of us see this day as simply a place to start the Christian year and to end the secular one.
The Christian Liturgical Year is a complex tapestry woven over millennia and borrowing from many cultures. None of the feasts is accidental but almost none is an original creation; each arose in media res to answer a particular need of the moment. It helps to contemplate them in the same way crafty musicians look at the work of musicians who came before them, i.e., as inspired revelations of kindred spirits from whom they are – implicitly at least – free to steal a rhythm, cop a rhyme.
So it is with spiritual traditions. In this case, if you scrape away the accretions of pomp and circumstance to better see the foundations you find the many creative borrowings used to build the edifice of the Christian Liturgical Year. The latter is itself merely a way of marking time in an endless circling and returning to the nodes of a particular life. That’s the thing about Christianity and Western culture: we took a circle and turned it into a spiral . Circles merely repeat. Spirals allow us new perspectives of the same landscape – i.e., our own life’s journey woven into a larger frame.
In truth, we Christians are simply the followers of one obscure rabbi. Limping along, we “amended” Jews are flanked on either side by Roman Law and Greek philosophy. Yet our moral basis remains firmly on the Ten Commandments even as we reach for that Higher Commandment: to love our God with our whole heart, soul, and mind, even as we struggle to love our neighbor as ourselves. Yes, it’s quite a reach, that two-part perfect harmony, especially if you begin at the end, by trying to love yourself. If you’re lucky you may once or twice meet someone who embodies this seemingly impossible “Law”. It’s a Law the same way gravity is though the results of violations are not so immediately seen. Still, we ignore it at our own peril.
Meanwhile it helps to see Christmas (which has grown ever more frenetic and harried as it has detached itself from those angels and shepherds) as simply another example of the endless cycle embedded in our linear history. The holy day of Bethlehem has returned inexorably to the feast it was designed to replace: Saturnalia. Funny how that plus ça change thing works, isn’t it? We are quickly losing our taste for empire even as we become more like Rome during its final decadence. You don’t need me to point out sad, desperate parallels.
The Baron has often alluded to our present times as a return to 1939. He’s right: this moment partakes of that same tragedy in some way that is beyond putting into words. When I heard our soldiers had been sent to Saudi Arabia in the days before Christmas, it felt like another shoe dropping from one more foot on the centipede.
Because our blog has somehow turned – or been turned – to face Europe, to bridge the divide that separates us from our forefathers, this Christmas carol from the dark days in France seemed appropriate for this Christmas of 2013:
Yes, my cup of Christmas this year reflects the dregs of the 20th century. That is because those events are still being fought over, lied about, and obfuscated. The more that Great Deception becomes apparent, the more obvious becomes the need to continue speaking about it. Which we will do. I have two other bloggers’ essays to give you, some time in the next few days.
But those horrific actions are about the larger scale of Momentous Events – see Breughel’s “Icarus”. On the every day plane (also see that same painting) I look for inspiration from the people who lived through those days and whose work transcended the darkness. Always it seems when I most need encouragement, someone shows up who embodies things hoped for…
Once, many years ago, I was invited to go dancing in New York City. One man I danced with owned a chemical company of some kind – in Baltimore, if I remember correctly. He had an unmistakable French accent, and since he was obviously from the World War II era, I eagerly plied him with questions about what life had been like then. To my unutterable surprise, it turned out he had been a friend of Gabriel Marcel. More than anyone, Marcel has been my inspiration, the man whose life and work truly mattered to me. To meet someone who had known him, someone who had also worked in the Underground in France while he taught ballroom dancing to the Nazis in his above-ground life…I still cannot describe the feeling that stayed with me long after that brief encounter.
Perhaps that’s all we need to make sense out of life during the darkening times: someone who shows us by their own lives how to live our own. Gabriel Marcel shuffled off this mortal coil some years ago. And now, a mystery among many, I share my life with the Baron, the one person who knows me better than I know myself but who is willing to sit down to supper with me anyway.
And in turn we share our lives with you, our readers?? How wondrous strange. Marcel said that life was not a problem to be solved but a mystery to be lived. The fact that we are all together here, briefly on the same page, gives me a glimmer of what he meant. Meanwhile, before we trudge onward, do you by any chance have a fife in that back pack of yours? Please play us a marching tune.