Our Revels Now Are Ended

img_7265

Old Christmas is past,
Twelfth Night is the last,
And we bid you adieu,
great joy to the new.

– Welsh carol

For now the time of gifts is gone­–
O boys that grow, O snows that melt,
O bathos that the years must fill–
Here is dull earth to build upon
Undecorated; we have reached
Twelfth Night or what you will…

– Louis MacNeice[i]

Christmas ends tonight. That may surprise those who thought it done by December 26th, or with the final New Year’s game. I do get funny looks when I utter “Merry Christmas on days 2 thourgh 11. But for those who keep the traditional Feast of the Incarnation, it is best when savored the full twelve days. With the gathering, gifting and communal celebrations mostly behind us, the last days of Christmas can be a peaceful inbreathing of wonder before ordinary time resumes. The angels have returned to heaven, but the starry nights are no less radiant. The shepherds have returned to their flock, but we still linger in the stable, desiring to adore the newborn Mystery just a little longer.

Poet Mary Oliver, experiencing an intuition of charged significance at a New England pond, wrote, “oh, what is that beautiful thing / that just happened?”[ii]– Her question perfectly expresses our devotional response to the Nativity. The event itself is but a moment, but its meaning generates a lifetime of reflection and adoration. So in these last days of Christmas I have continued to carol with guitar, bowed psaltery and hammered dulcimer, read the poems of Incarnation, contemplated the crèche by the light of the decorated evergreen, and gazed in attentive silence at our candlelit icon of Madonna and Child. Oh what is that beautiful thing that just happened?

 But tonight, it’s all about to end. A few savvy churches may observe the playful but largely forgotten Twelfth Night revels tonight, and tomorrow we will make some fuss about the arrival of the Magi to worship the holy Child, but then our retreat into festive space/time will be over and done. The Holy Family’s Christmas concluded that way: abruptly, with a quick exit to escape Herod’s swords. So too will ours, as we resume not only our private travails but also the current dismal prospects of our public life, so well described by W. H. Auden in his “Christmas Oratorio”:

The evil and armed draw near;
The weather smells of their hate
And the houses smell of our fear …

There’s no escaping history. We can’t stay dreaming forever in holy and silent nights. “Well, so that is that,” Auden wrote. “Now we must dismantle the tree, / Putting the decorations back into their cardboard boxes … The Christmas Feast is already a fading memory…”

But, for the time being, here we all are,
Back in the moderate Aristotelian city
Of darning and the Eight-Fifteen, where Euclid’s geometry
And Newton’s mechanics would account for our experience,
And the kitchen table exists because I scrub it.

As for the Christmas revelation of Incarnate Love, will it also fade away in the glare of the everyday, after being too briefly entertained as only “an agreeable possibility?”[iii]

Joseph Pieper, writing about the way we wish each other well at Christmas, says that “the real thing we are wishing is the ‘success’ of the festive celebration itself, not just its outer forms and enrichments, not the trimmings, but the gift that is meant to be the true fruit of the festival: renewal, transformation, rebirth.”[iv]

Renewal. Transformation. Rebirth. Were these among the gifts you received this Christmas? And if so, what are you going to do with them? How will your life be different, now that you have seen the Child of Bethlehem? How will your world be different?

img_7267

Thirty-five years ago, on the Ninth Day of Christmas, I was running on the beach in Santa Monica, California, when I saw four young men standing along the shore, gazing out at the vast Pacific. They wore sweatshirts printed with their school name: IOWA. They had come west for the Rose Bowl, held the previous day. Their team had lost to Washington, 28-0, but now they were discovering the real reason for their journey: the sea.  It was perhaps the first time they had ever seen it. They were standing quite still, not talking, transfixed by its boundless liquid infinity. Wonder shone from their faces.

Earth and sky had been washed clean by a pre-dawn storm. Cumulus billows erupted along the horizon, while the morning sun, having won its battle with the longest nights, blazed above us in a pure blue heaven. It was one of those days when the world seemed freshly made.

I continued running down the beach, but when I returned twenty minutes later, the Iowans were still there, staring at the sea, taking all the time they needed to absorb so much wonder.

I thought to myself: When they return to Iowa, will they carry that bright ocean with them? Would we someday hear about puzzled farmers who swore they’d heard waves roaring in their cornfields?

And when you leave Christmas behind, heading home to your Nazareths, or fleeing to distant Egypts, will you carry its bright immensity with you? Will the people you encounter ever hear its roar?

 

[i] “Twelfth Night,” q. in William Sansom, The Book of Christmas (New York: McGraw-Hill, 1968), 187

[ii] Mary Oliver, “At Blackwater Pond,” New and Selected Poems (Boston: Beacon Press, 1992), 226

[iii] W.H. Auden, “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio” in Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976): “The evil and armed” is in Advent section, 272; the rest is in “The Flight into Egypt,” 307

[iv] Joseph Pieper, In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity, trans. Richard & Clara Winston (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, 1965), 30-31

Dreading and Hoping All: Thoughts about Halloween

img_2957

Nor dread nor hope attend
A dying animal;
A man awaits his end
Dreading and hoping all.

— William Butler Yeats[i]

The Lord is my light and my rescue.
Whom then should I fear?

— Psalm 27:1

 

When children assume alternative identities to roam the streets on All Hallows Eve (Halloween), they are performing an ancient ritual of interaction between the realms of the seen and the unseen, the living and the dead. The proliferation of characters from pop culture may have diluted the otherworldly explicitness of the more traditional ghosts, monsters and witches, but the strangeness remains. Whatever the costumes may be, for one night an entire generation disappears into a procession of fantastic and otherworldly beings, disturbing the settled normality of our neighborhoods.

The American Halloween traces its origins to Samhain (“summer’s end”), the Celtic New Year marking the end of harvest and the onset of winter. As the zero point between an exhausted past and time’s renewal, Samhain (pronounced SAH-win) was considered a critical moment for both nature and humanity. Life itself hung in the balance (would Spring ever return?), and the boundary between the visible world and whatever lay beyond it grew thin and porous. Spirits, fairies, and even the human dead were thought to be abroad at such a time, because everything was at stake and everyone wanted a vote in whatever happened.

The ancient Celts were ambivalent about the disruptive presence of so many immigrants from the Other Side. They lit fires and carried jack-o-lanterns to guide and warm the spirits in the autumnal night, but also to ward them off. They set out food and drink not just for hospitality but also for appeasement. They wore masks and costumes to imitate and honor the uncanny beings, but also to scare them away, or prevent them from recognizing and harming the vulnerable humans behind the masks.

In their uneasy relationship with the mysteries of death and transcendence, were the Celts so unlike ourselves? We sense in otherness both threat and gift. It stirs both dread and hope.

I know that some Christians, both past and present, have fretted about the “paganism” of seasonal rituals, as though deep attention to the rhythms and patterns of cosmos and psyche will deform rather than enrich our collective wisdom. But I think we would do well to consider the gifts of ancestral experience in the matter of living harmoniously with time and nature. How might we use pre-Christian dimensions of All Hallows Eve, for example, to take us deeper into an authentic spiritual practice of embodied, earthly existence?

Many years ago, as liturgical artist-in-residence at St. John’s Episcopal Church in Los Angeles, I designed an All Hallows Eve ritual incorporating the Halloween themes of mortality, anxiety and the otherworldly into a eucharistic celebration for All Saints’ Day. The luminosity of saintly lives would shine even brighter, I thought, against the deepest black of our mortal uncertainty and fear.

Our publicity described the event as “an autumnal ritual to mark the season of darkening with ancient customs, wherein life and light are reaffirmed. We will conclude with a festival eucharist for All Saints’ Day.”

Many participants came dressed as their favorite saint (broadly defined to include such non-canonical moderns as John Muir, Emily Dickinson, Mark Rothko, Martin Luther King and Dorothy Day). Those without costumes were provided with a symbol to carry, such as a lantern (truth-seeker), book (theologian or writer), musical instrument (musician), or protest sign (activist). Everyone wore a mask to help us disappear for the moment into an anonymous collectivity.

Some 200 strong, with drums, kazoos and other noisemakers, we processed outside, around the block, behind a large papier-maché sun, which would soon enact for us the season’s decline into winter. When we finally made our way into the church, our only light was the flickering glow of a few dozen jack-o-lanterns scattered around the interior.

Once everyone was inside, with the sun symbol lifted high at the head of the nave, the presider said:

As the sun departs from us, depriving us of light and warmth, call to mind the things which make you afraid or anxious, the things which darken your own lives and turn your hearts cold. Consider as well all the forces and follies which threaten the health of this planet and the well-being of God’s creatures.

And when the sun has gone, take off your mask, and face the darkness with all the trust and faith that is in you. We are not alone. The true Light of the world remains, hidden within the deepest night.

Audio of flowing electronic drones began the fill the vast Romanesque space as the sun made its slow way back down the nave and out the door. Once it had disappeared, the music faded out, and with thoughtful solemnity we all began to remove our masks. Our true faces revealed at last, we simply waited in the quiet darkness with prayerful attention.

Several minutes passed.
Then an unaccompanied singer, somewhere in the dark, broke the silence:

For all the saints,
who from their labors rest,
who thee, by faith, before the world confessed.
Thy name, O Jesus, be forever blessed.
Alleluia, alleluia.[ii]

This initiated a series of theatrical blackouts depicting the saints. A spotlight would come on to show a performer employing words, music or movement to represent a particular saint. When the spot switched off, another saint was illumined in a different part of the church. There were nine saints in all.

After the final blackout, all these saints, now robed in white and carrying candles, converged toward the altar as an unseen narrator read from Revelation 7:

After that I saw a huge number, impossible to count,
from every nation, tribe, people and language,
standing before the throne and before the Lamb . . .

The saints were all standing together at the altar when the reader concluded:

They will hunger no more, and thirst no more . . .
and God will wipe away every tear from their eyes.

Then the saints all raised their candles high and shouted with one voice: “Free at last! Free at last! Thank God Almighty, I’m free at last!” The organ began to play variations on Vaughan Williams’ great hymn for All Saints as our own hand candles were lit by the saints moving among us, until everyone was joined in a luminous refutation of eternal darkness.

The eucharistic feast of the redeemed had begun,

and God, as promised,
proves to be mercy clothed in light.[iii]

 

 

 

 

[i] “Death,” q. in Sandra M. Gilbert, Death’s Door: Modern Dying and the Ways We Grieve (New York: W. W. Norton & Company, 2006), 127

[ii] Text by William Walsham How (1823-1897), in The Hymnal 1982 (New York: The Church Hymnal Corporation), 287

[iii] Jane Kenyon, “Notes from the Other Side,” in Collected Poems (St. Paul, MN: Graywolf Press, 2005), 267

Why Do We Work? A Labor Day Reflection

"September" (Labor of the Months), Samos monastery dormitory, Camino de Santiago, Spain

“September” (Labor of the Months), Samos monastery dormitory, Camino de Santiago, Spain

Good work is a way of living… it is unifying and healing. It brings us home from pride and despair and places us responsibly within the human estate. It defines us as we are, not too good to work with our bodies, but too good to work poorly or joylessly or selfishly or alone. (Wendell Berry) [i]

Labor Day began in the late nineteenth century as both an homage to American workers (parade, speeches) and a time of re-creation (picnic, dance, fireworks). Congress declared it a national holiday in the aftermath of a contentious railroad strike in 1894, where 30 workers died in violent confrontations. It was hoped that honoring workers would ease tensions and foster social harmony. As the Department of Labor currently describes it, the first Monday in September “is dedicated to the social and economic achievements of American workers. It constitutes a yearly national tribute to the contributions workers have made to the strength, prosperity, and well-being of our country.” [ii]

The holiday’s explicit homage to labor has long been overshadowed by its seasonal significance as the American farewell to summer—one last stretch of fun in the sun before the year gets busy again. But in our overworked culture, where the inbox follows you everywhere and vacations are a fraction of what Europeans enjoy, could we not make some time to reflect together about the nature of labor? What if churches were to revive the notion of Labor Sunday, where our tools could be blessed and the spirituality of work considered? [iii]

In the Bible, the pleasures of a perpetual weekend in Eden ended abruptly when God created Monday morning as a curse upon the first humans, who evidently needed to learn things the hard way. “By the sweat of your face” will you earn your daily bread,” said the Creator.[iv] The story was a way of thinking about the question, Why do we have to work so darn hard? Before the Fall, Adam and Eve were given light duties of tending the well-watered garden, more like an aristocrat’s hobby than the grueling subsistence farming bequeathed to their descendants.

Hard-working humans have been reminiscing ever since about the “happy Eden of those golden years.” [v] Stephen Duck, an eighteenth-century English poet-priest, voiced the complaint of the exploited farmworker.

Let those who feast at Ease on dainty Fare
Pity the Reapers, who their Feasts prepare …
Think what a painful Life we daily lead;
Each morning early rise, go late to Bed …
No respite from our Labour can be found;
Like Sisyphus, our Work is never done …[vi]

The justice issues arising around working conditions, exploitation, and economic inequality are themselves the shared work of any society worth its name. My ideal Labor Day would involve some serious community conversation—more listening than talking—about these things. But I would also be curious to explore the spirituality of work as well. Why do we do whatever we do? Does it give us joy? Does it matter?

An old Scottish drinking song provides a succinct answer in its praise of various occupations. The carpenter’s verse suggests the inner satisfaction of work well done, honors the process as well as the product, and celebrates the interdependence of the social world where each of us benefits from the labor of others:

Here’s a song for the carpenter, may patience guide your hand,
For the dearer your work to you, the longer it will stand.
And when the wind is at our door, we never will forget;
We’ve sung your praises many a time, and so will we yet. [vii]

Like our Creator, we are all makers and doers who enjoy the fulfillment of intentions and the solving of problems. It’s in our nature to see what needs to be done and then take a hand in making it so. We also find pleasure in the solidarity of labor, not only through our relationships with coworkers but also in the awareness of practicing a skill handed down by so many mentors and predecessors.

In an imperfect and often unjust society, not everyone has access to employment that delivers pleasure or meaning in itself, but one’s paying job may still be part of a larger labor which is absolutely worth doing, such as supporting a family or funding a future dream. Studs Terkel, who collected oral histories of countless Americans, believed that all of us long for meaningful work. “I think most of us are looking for a calling, not a job,” he said. “Most of us … have jobs that are too small for our spirit.” [viii]

Lewis Hyde makes a useful distinction between “work” and “labor.” Work is done by the hour, on the clock, usually for money. Its value is quantified, and has economic exchange value. Labor, on the other hand, keeps its own schedule, sets its own pace, and may include time off or even sleep as part of its process. Its social value may be clear, but its economic value is hard to quantify. Its product is not a commodity to exploit but a gift to share. “Writing a poem, raising a child, developing a new calculus, resolving a neurosis, invention in all forms—these are labors.” So are volunteer work, ministry, visiting the sick and the prisoner, gardening, personal soul work and “the slow maturation of talent.” [ix] Such labor is priceless.

Most of us have done both work and labor, as well as hybrids which include elements of both. And while Citizen Kane’s financial advisor said, “It’s no trick to make a lot of money, if all you want is to make a lot of money,” the truer and nobler task is to cooperate with the Creator in repairing the world, that it may be a place of beauty, love and justice.

So my Labor Day question is this: Where and how can we perform the labor to which we are uniquely called, the thing which Etienne Souriau has called the “Angel of the work” [x]— that which gives us joy and blesses others?

Another verse in that Scottish song thanks the singers who keep their voices clear:

For the world as you would have it be,
you sing with all your wit,
And ease the work of Providence,
and so will we yet.

In that spirit, I leave you with two such singers, Joan Baez and her sister Mimi Farina, who “ease the work of Providence” by voicing the universal human right to flourish:

Bread, yes, but roses too!

 

Related Post:

Grace Me Guide

 

[i] Wendell Berry, The Unsettling of America, q. in Karen Speerstra, ed., Divine Sparks: Collected Wisdom of the Heart (Sandpoint, ID: Morning Light Press, 2005), 520

[ii] Department of Labor website: https://www.dol.gov/general/laborday/history

[iii] This was instituted by churches as a companion to Labor Day, but has fallen into disuse.

[iv] Genesis 3:19

[v] John Clare, “Helpstone” (1809) q. in Raymond Williams, The Country and the City (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1973), 10

[vi] Stephen Duck, “The Thresher’s Labour” (1730), in Williams, op. cit., 88

[vii] The original, “Sae Will We Yet,” is attributed to Walter Watson, but I believe the carpenter verse is a contemporary addition by Ossian’s Tony Cuffe. A fine version by Gordon Bok, Ann Muir, and Ed Trickett is here: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=h48Db_cvdDE

[viii] In Speerstra, op. cit., 519

[ix] Lewis Hyde, The Gift: Imagination and the Erotic Life of Property (New York: Vintage Books, 1979), 50

[x] Etienne Souriau, q. in Isabelle Stengers, Thinking with Whitehead: A Free and Wild Creation of Concepts, trans. Michael Chase (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 2011), 464

Tick Tock: Thoughts for New Year’s Eve

Fiona Hall installation, Australian pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

Fiona Hall installation, Australian pavilion, Venice Biennale 2015

I lived like the Puri Indians, of whom it is said that “for yesterday, today, and tomorrow they have only one word, and they express the variety of meaning by pointing backward for yesterday, forward for tomorrow, and overhead for the passing day.”

— Henry David Thoreau

I’ve been on a calendar, but never on time.

— Marilyn Monroe

 

The Clock is a 24-hour video by Christian Marclay in which each and every minute of a day is represented in one or more scenes from old movies. The exact time of any particular minute is either spoken by a character, seen in a close-up of a clock or watch, or simply glimpsed on a clock or digital display in the background as the camera pans across a room or street. For some particularly notable minutes, such as high noon, The Clock might draw from five or six different films over the course of 60 seconds. For less significant minutes, sometimes only one scene was found by the team of researchers, who spent two years viewing thousands of films in search of lost time. And for a surprisingly small number of minutes in the wee hours of the morning, a generic “middle-of-the-night” scene had to be employed (often from film noir).

The video is run by a computer program which goes to whatever the local time is when “play” is pressed, so the work itself functions as a reliable timepiece. When I watched it, in one sitting, in the theater of the Los Angeles County Art Museum two years ago, it started at noon on Saturday and finished at noon the next day. It was a memorable and vastly entertaining journey. I was especially struck by the degree to which our lives are organized by the mechanized measurement of time. Sure, we all know that, but to see scene after scene of alarms going off, children heading for school, lunch breaks, quitting time, dinners served, and so on, made the point in a way that could be a little unsettling. How free are we, really?

For me, the most unique part of that marathon viewing experience was the act of consciously noticing every single minute of a 24-hour period (except when I dozed briefly a few times, plus three quick bathroom breaks, hoping I wouldn’t miss much). Now it’s noon, now it’s 12:01, now it’s 12:02 … I didn’t need an extraordinary degree of mindfulness. It was actually quite effortless to stay focused on the screen. The diversity of the selected scenes was the perfect stimulant. When I watched Andy Warhol’s 8-hour film of a man sleeping in the 1960s, my mind wandered far and wide during that interminable screening of sameness. But The Clock kept me watching by showing a great many things, not just one big thing. Curiosity alone was enough to keep me paying attention. What will the next minute contain?

New Year’s Eve is, for a brief time, like viewing Marclay’s video. Tonight, the majority of the human race will pay close attention, minute by minute, to the passing of time in the countdown of hours, minutes and seconds to 2016.

Of course, there is no universal Now when everyone will shout or kiss in unison. As Einstein taught us, what time it is depends on where in the universe you are standing. Whether anything is past, present, or future varies with the location of the observer. At our house, we will bang the drum, strike the wind gong, and blow the train whistle in synchronization with a reality already in the past: the ball drop 3 hours earlier in Times Square.

Even further back, in 1949, Einstein’s friend Kurt Godël offered a mathematical proof for time travel. If time has a spatial quality allowing us to move backward and forward in it, then time in the sense of irreversible passing does not exist. Past and future become places we can (theoretically) go. And if this is so, then we are close to the old theological image of all times being simultaneous to God. As William Blake put it,

I see the past, present, and future, existing all at once
Before me.

Be that as it may, who among us actually lives above time’s flow, as though there is neither past nor present nor future? Who does not feel, particularly at turnings, transitions, and departures, what Susan Sontag called “time’s relentless melt?” We live on the knife edge between old and new, memory and regret, loss and hope. When we dance tonight at midnight, may it prove just wide enough for our wild steps.

Would you have it any other way, this life of falling and rising, losing and finding? Virginia Woolf’s Orlando describes an alternative existence: the protagonist is free from the dictates of time, living on from century to century while everyone else is passing away. But not being wedded to any particular generation or era has a price. “Her loves are wild with passion, but seem to leave no trace, and by the novel’s end she is left occasionally wounded, but always without the pleasure of a scar.”[i]

It seems fitting that the world festival of the turning of time comes in the middle of the Twelve Days of Christmas, since the Incarnation is God’s decisive embrace of the temporal and finite, while extending – simultaneously – an invitation to us humans to embody in ourselves the divine kenosis – the eternal self-emptying that constitutes God’s trinitarian life. In other words, both human and divine are all about giving over and letting go. Never just being, but also becoming.

There is much more to be said about all this, but the sun is low in the sky, and it’s high time to prepare a welcome for the New Year, which I pray will be full of wonder, delight, illumination, and meaningful change for you, dear reader, and everyone you love.

In the meantime, I leave you with this lovely praise of temporality from D. H. Lawrence:

Life, the ever-present, knows no finality, no finished crystallization. The perfect rose is only a running flame, emerging and flowing off, and never in any sense at rest, static, finished. Herein lies its transcendent loveliness. The whole tide of all life and all time suddenly heaves, and appears before us as an apparition, a revelation…

Don’t give me the infinite or the eternal … Give me the still, white seething, the incandescence and the coldness of the incarnate moment: the moment, the quick of all change and haste and opposition: the moment, the immediate present, the now… Here, in this very instant moment, up bubbles the stream of time, out of the wells of futurity, flowing to the oceans of the past. The source, the issue, the creative quick….[ii]

 

Related post: The Angel of Possibility

 

 

[i] Colin Dickey, “Reelin’ in the Years”, Lapham’s Quarterly VII:4, Fall 2014, p. 221

[ii] ibid., 117 (from D. H. Lawrence, the preface to New Poems, 1920)

July 4th and the Pursuit of Happiness

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

Map (Jasper Johns, 1961)

On July 4, 1776, Thomas Jefferson rose before dawn, recorded the temperature at 6 a.m. (68 degrees), had some tea and biscuits, and made his way to Independence Hall. Sixty-nine years later, Henry David Thoreau chose the day to begin his sojourn at Walden Pond. On July 4, 1863, Lee’s Confederate army began its decisive retreat from Gettysburg, and on the same date in 1895 Katherine Lee Bates published “America the Beautiful”. Nathaniel Hawthorne, Stephen Foster, Louis B. Mayer and Obama’s oldest daughter were all born on July 4, and both Jefferson and John Adams died on the 50thth anniversary of the Founders’ Declaration. So what do the rest of us have planned for Independence Day?

It was Adams who predicted that the Fourth would be “celebrated by succeeding generations as the great anniversary festival” and “solemnized with pomp and parade, with shows, games, sports, guns, bells, bonfires, and illuminations, from one end of this continent to the other, from this time forth for evermore.”[i] We have more or less fulfilled the externals of Adams’ vision, but the mindfulness with which we keep the feast is subject to question. In 1975, just before the American Bicentennial, a Gallup poll revealed that 28% of Americans were unable to identify what significant event happened in 1776.

What should we remember as a people? Do we create simplifying myths that unite us with some intoxicating blend of nostalgia and amnesia? Sanitizing and depoliticizing the past is a way to reduce conflict, as in the efforts to heal sectional division after the Civil war. But that can leave grievous social ills unaddressed and unhealed. The current debate about the Confederate battle flag shows how deeply embedded such sanitizing mythology can be. Preserving “heritage,” we discover, is a massive process of forgetting where, in Joan Didion’s memorable phrase, “no one is bloodied by history.”[ii]

Some governments try to supervise the formation of collective memory. The late Soviet Union is a notorious example, but there are also more benign forms of cultivating shared cultural identity (mais oui!). But in America, as Michael Kammen has noted, “people forget and remember largely on their own.”[iii] We have no ministry of culture, and national memory is contested without official referees.

But few of us will give much thought to either politics or culture tomorrow. As a radio talk show guy put it in his summary of America’s military mission: “Those guys are fighting so we can have barbecues and drink beer.”[iv] Pursuit of happiness indeed. But as Daniel Webster noted, it has always been so. “The tavern,” he said, “was the headquarters of the Revolution”[v] – a gathering place where ideas were exchanged and debated. In these latter days we have retained the conviviality of the tavern while dispensing with the ideas. The long-winded orations of old-time Fourths are long gone. There will be little thoughtful discussion of liberty and the common good around the barbecue. No radical challenges to tyranny and oppression will be issued. We’ll just enjoy a day off with our families, friends and neighbors as we pursue happiness together. And in a society fraught with so much division and disconnection, being together in peace and play and joy may be as good a way as any to keep the American feast.

One of the moments when I feel community most vividly is after the last fireworks fade to black above our local harbor. All of us who have watched from the beach begin to make our way along a forest path back to the road. It is too dark to see faces, or anything else that distinguishes one from another. We are an egalitarian procession of shadows, walking together. No longer pursuing happiness, we seem to have found it. Being there together in the night, for a few lovely minutes, is the most important fact about us.

The wonder I feel in the holiday’s concluding moment is beautifully expressed in Samuel Hynes’ memoir of his childhood in the 1930s. Although he grew up in a very different America, his description touches on something timeless:

The last rocket is always the best of all – burst after burst, the echoes rebounding, and then another burst just when you think it is all over. And then it is. The families rise slowly in the sudden silence and fold their blankets, and walk home through the dark, still streets, not talking much, purged by the high splendors they have seen, satisfied that another Fourth is over, another summer has been celebrated with a proper hullabaloo.[vi]

[i] Benson Bobrick, Angel in the Whirlwind: The Triumph of the American Revolution (New York: Penguin Books, 1998), 203

[ii] Michael Kammen, Mystic Chords of Memory: The Transformation of Tradition in American Culture (New York: Vintage Books, 1993), 667

[iii] ibid., 700

[iv] Overheard on a Montana roadtrip a few years ago.

[v] Angel in the Whirlwind, 494

[vi] Samuel Hynes, The Growing Seasons: An American Boyhood Before the War (New York: Penguin Books, 2003), 111

The Angel of Possibility

Harold Lloyd clock

My times are in your hand; deliver me.  (Psalm 31:15)

“Let me be the first to wish you a happy and blessed 1984.” This first salutation of the New Year was given, two minutes after midnight, by Bishop Desmond Tutu to several hundred Episcopal college students and campus ministers gathered at a snowy retreat center in the Rocky Mountains. He was preaching at a eucharist begun in the final moments of 1983. The gospel reading, spanning the stroke of midnight, accompanied our entry into the year of Orwellian dread, 1984. Then the bishop’s genial greeting at the start of his homily broke the fatalistic spell cast by the 1949 novel. Orwell’s terrible future had not come to pass. Instead, a man stood before us speaking eloquently and authentically about hope and possibility. A few weeks later he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. The God of history is yet capable of surprise.

But it remains an act of faith to believe this in earnest. Walter Benjamin, a German thinker in the darkest of times, gave a chilling description in 1940 of the “angel of history,” who can see nothing but the terrible past as he is swept backward into the future:

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. [i]

As we contemplate the wreckage of 2014, we might well share Benjamin’s despair. But there is another angel, the angel of possibility, who knows better. This angel says: Do not be afraid. Whatever twists and turns the story may take, it is in the end a story of life, not death.

And every New Year’s Eve, we ritually renew our faith in that story. There is an element of carnival this night, as we throw off the tyranny of good order for a bit of wild excess, declaring independence from the way things are in the name of things to come. But the night’s underlying theme is not chaos but renewal, as expressed in the traditional English carol:

The old year now away is fled, the new year it is entered…
Now, like the snake, your skin cast off… and so let the year begin.

This festival of rebirth, ringing out the old, ringing in the new, reflects an abiding human rhythm. Whether it’s every morning or every December 31st, we bid farewell to our flawed efforts and bad habits, resolving to do better this time around. Taken in isolation, New Year’s Eve has a whiff of doubt if not desperation. We know that the midnight noise and kisses will soon fade into the hangovers and broken resolutions of January’s new morning.

But New Year’s Day is also the eighth day of Christmas, the festival of Incarnation. What wants to be born is not a project of our own making, doomed to wither in the wintry blast of time. The Babe of Bethlehem is not the cartoon baby draped in the banner of “2015,” deposing the old man of “2014” in a melancholy preview of its own ultimate fate 365 days hence.

The holy Child is the Lord of the Dance “that will never, never die.” Yes, this new person will share our mortal condition; he will live and die as one of us. But in so doing he will accomplish what we can never do on our own. He will make our own stories part of the divine Dance. He will guide our own steps into the way of peace.

People often fuss about whether Christmas is pagan or Christian, secular or sacred. But the whole point of Christmas is that it is now impossible to tell the two apart. Ever since “the great angel-blinding Light” shrank “His blaze, to shine in a poor shepherd’s eye,”[ii] what George Herbert termed “Heaven in ordinarie”[iii] is the way this Dance goes. When the Christmas festival fades like Scrooge’s transformative dream, we will all return to habitual place and ordinary time. But if we have paid any attention at all, nothing will be quite the same again: neither ourselves, nor the world, nor the flow of time.

God with us. This changes everything.

On this last day of the year I rose early and went outside to see the stars. Orion, winter’s dominant constellation, had already left the stage. Leo, who rules the western sky on spring evenings, now roared in his place. To gaze on the night sky before dawn is to behold the future. Standing in the cold of winter, I looked upon the constellations of spring. And to complicate the metaphor, the starlight itself was a message from the distant past.

Time is a mysterious gift. Past, present and future keep changing partners in the everlasting whirl of the Dance. Breathless, we do our best to keep up. As W. H. Auden put it, “if there when grace dances, I should dance.”[iv]

The poet also wrote perhaps the best New Year’s Eve line of all, which I commend to you with my wishes for a most happy and blessed 2015:

Time is our choice
of How to love
and Why.[v]

[i] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, q. in Hugh Rayment Pickard, The Myths of Time: From Saint Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2004), 75

[ii] Richard Crashaw, “Satan’s Sight of the Nativity,” in The Roads From Bethlehem: Christmas Literature from Writers Ancient and Modern, ed. Pegram Johnson III and Edna M. Troiano (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) 148

[iii] George Herbert, “Prayer I”, George Herbert: The Country Parson & The Temple, ed. John N. Wall, Jr. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981)

[iv] W.H. Auden, “Whitsunday in Kirchstetten,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 559

[v] “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems p. 297. This remarkable work, a must-read for the Christmas season, was performed live before the New Year’s Eve eucharist mentioned at the beginning of this post. Auden reminds us that, once we have seen the Child of Incarnation, our challenge is to redeem the “Time Being” from insignificance.

No place like home

Over the rainbow photo

We didn’t have enough eggs this morning to make the walnut pie, so I headed out at dawn for the village grocery. On the way, I played Charles Ives’ “Thanksgiving Day”, a tone poem permeated with fragments of American hymnody. Ives said that the clashing moods of major and minor chords represented “the sternness and strength and austerity of the Puritan character, and it seemed to me that any of the major, minor, or diminished chords used alone gave too much a feeling of bodily ease, which the Puritan did not give in to.” [i]

The irony of driving my car to the store while contemplating Puritan rigor did not escape me, but I did pass a solitary runner braving the cold drizzle, and joined my spirit to his propitiatory sacrifice.

Ives’ cacophony of broken tunes resolves in the end with the choral singing of a New England hymn:

O God, beneath thy guiding hand
Our exiled fathers crossed the sea;
And when they trod the wintry strand,
With prayer and psalm they worshipped Thee.

We are all exiles: from the Garden of Eden, from our mother’s womb, from the homes we grew up in, from ancestral lands, from pasts best abandoned and futures that never happened. Longing for home is the human condition.

As Dorothy knew, clicking her red shoes, “There’s no place like home.” And on the fourth Thursday of November, millions of Americans go wandering in search of that place, real or imagined, where they were always welcomed and known and understood.

Frank Baum, author of the Oz books, was never quite satisfied with Dorothy’s choice of Kansas over Oz. In his sixth book of the series, Dorothy moves back to Oz, dragging Auntie Em and Uncle Henry with her. As Salman Rushdie notes, “Oz finally became home; the imagined world became the actual world.”

The real secret of the ruby slippers is not that “there’s no place like home,” but rather that there is no longer any such place as home: except, of course, for the home we make, or the homes that are made for us, in Oz; which is anywhere, and everywhere, except the place from which we began. [ii]

Whether you celebrate today in Oz, or in Kansas, or out there somewhere along the Yellow Brick Camino, may it be with a grateful heart and blessed community. And if you need directions home and don’t have your ruby slippers, you might try Raymond Carver:

Left off the highway and
down the hill. At the
bottom, hang another left.
Keep bearing left. The road
will make a Y. Left again.
There’s a creek on the left.
Keep going. Just before
the road ends, there’ll be
another road. Take it
and no other. Otherwise,
your life will be ruined
forever. There’s a log house
with a shake roof, on the left.
It’s not that house. It’s
the next house, just over
a rise. The house
where trees are laden with
fruit. Where phlox, forsythia,
and marigold grow. It’s
the house where the woman
stands in the doorway
wearing sun in her hair. The one
who’s been waiting
all this time.
The woman who loves you.
The one who can say,
“What’s kept you?” [iii]

[i] Liner notes by Paul C. Echols, Charles Ives Holidays Symphony, Chicago Symphony Orchestra and Chorus conducted by Michael Tilson Thomas (CBS 1986)

[ii] Salman Rushdie, The Wizard of Oz (London: British Film Institute, 1992), p. 57

[iii] “Waiting,” by Raymond Carver, from All of Us: The Collected Poems (Alfred A. Knopf)