Monday, January 5, 2009

12th Night and the Meaning of Ritual

It is commonly acknowledged that we live in a “de-sacralized” culture; this means that little to nothing in our society is “sacred” or inherently holy or transcendent. As the character Reginald Bunthorn says in Gilbert and Sullivan’s opera Patience:
Patience, you don’t like poetry – well, between you and me, I don’t like poetry. It’s hollow, unsubstantial – unsatisfactory. What’s the use of yearning for Elysian Fields when you know you can’t get ’em, and would only let ’em out on building leases if you had ’em?

In our materialistic, transactionalized era it is very difficult to feel connected to anything bigger than the ego, the individual, the solipsistic “me.” This is particularly true when we look at the patterns of daily and annual life today, especially at Christmas. So much is made “real” by measurement: how much money was spent, how many miles driven, cards sent out, the number of calories consumed, &c. How many people today – within and without the Church – experience time as an immersion in the mystery of God’s creative and redemptive love? We consume events, discarding their empty husks with the weekly garbage collection. Preparing, savoring, steeping, mulling, contemplating are almost meaningless in our pre-packaged, pre-digested, disposable environment.

For those of us who have come to experience life through the lens of the Liturgical Year, though, things are quite different. We prepare and savor as part and parcel of daily and annual life; and, what we enter into is not the old pagan cycle of time repeating itself endlessly, leading nowhere. We are gradually re-shaped into pilgrims on a sacred journey, where each foot-fall and each rest-stop has deep potential and actual value. The hidden meaning of Creation, our true nature, and the presence of God hidden from view by our own blindness are all revealed in extraordinary, beautiful ways. For those whose calendar revolves around the Sun of the World rather than the Son of the Father, this seems little more than a fairy-tale. Yet, years ago I began to realize it was the secular account of Time and its meaning that was the fairy-tale, or (more precisely) the lie.

A case in point is 12th Night. For the world, Christmas is now over and it is the season to pay off bills and purchase plastic bins to hold more of the stuff accumulated during December. In the Church Calendar, though, these final hours of Christmastide have great meaning: the quiet and innerness of the Nativity in Bethlehem is about to undergo a great change. The hiddenness of God’s coming in Christ (like “rain on fleece,” to use a superb expression from St. Cyril of Jerusalem) was not the point of the Incarnation; it was a beautiful and necessary stage. However, the Christ-child is more than Mary’s son, more than the Shepherds’ delight. He is the Light of the Nations and Savior of the World. The Magi who are about to arrive, the Baptism Christ is about to undergo, and the miracle at Cana about to be worked are all testimonies to this fact about Christ – a fact no less true in our “multicultural” world of today than it was in the polyglot and polytheistic world of Pax Augustus.

Tomorrow we will celebrate this Manifestation of Christ to the world in sacrament, song, pageant, feasting and fireworks. Then, we will spend some time “unpacking” its meaning for the coming weeks. All the while, we will be connecting the particulars of our individual journeys into both the specific part of the Church Year and (through it) the Great Story of Salvation in Christ. Instead of looking out on a world emptied of meaning and content, we will steep in a rich stew of meaning, purpose, and context.

Tonight, “12th Night,” our family will sing and listen to Christmas carols one more time, a couple of favorite Christmas stories will be read, we will enjoy some final Christmastide treats (including some incredibly good eggnog) and lovingly pack away the Christmas ornaments, taking down the tree. New greens for the season leading to Candlemas will be put up; Epiphany decorations will be put out, and Epiphany music played tomorrow. Another joyous step in our own transformation will have been experienced, and new gifts given and received. Instead of a bleak January, we begin a new season of sacred meaning and purpose, conveyed to us by the rituals and patterns we have inherited from those before us. It is testimony once again of the value of the sacred tradition over which we are set as stewards. It is something at once so fragile and so strong… much like the Christ-child Himself… that calls us to live lives of faithful discipleship in a de-sacralized world. For us, a star shines in the night; a light burns fiercely, guiding the way into Truth.

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