Thursday, January 08, 2009

If the Lord Does Not Call the Feast

I originally posted this item over at the Holy Whapping, but I think its festal and cultural subject-matter is also uniquely relevant to the crisis of the liturgy in the modern world:

Man is most free, and most human, when he celebrates a feast, in honor of the divine. That is when distinctions among men come the closest to vanishing; the very word “celebrate,” in Latin, suggests a crowding together. It cannot be a feast in honor of ourselves; that is but self-absorption, with food. It cannot be a dinner for making your way in the world, hobnobbing with Important People. It cannot be a fundraiser for the candidate you believe will return the most money to your pocket. If the Lord does not build the house, they labor in vain that build it, says the Psalmist.

We might say too, if the Lord does not call the feast, they cry in vain that call it. Look at our paltry attempts to establish wholly secular feasts, or to remove from even a national holiday the last traces of the holy. These attempts reflect not the establishment or preservation of culture, but its evisceration. We took that fine day on which America once remembered the sacrifice of her men in the horrible trenches of Flanders and the Argonne, the day called Armistice Day because that was the day when World War I ended, and shifted it to some Monday or other, tacking upon it the innocuous name Veterans’ Day, and obscuring the meaning of the Sunday before it, to boot. So have we also done with Oblivion Day, the day whereon we forget the liberty for which our fathers gave their lives. So have we done with Residents’ Day, the day whereon we ignore the men who resided for a time in the White House, two among whom, Washington and Lincoln, we used to revere around that time for some benefits or other they conferred upon us. So would we also do with Dependence Day, were it not for the embarrassing fact that it is otherwise known by its specific date, the Fourth of July. We have made the very phrase “national holiday” almost a contradiction in terms. Can anyone tell what is holy about Labor Day?

I do not wish simply to mourn the loss of a vaguely Christian American culture. I am noting the loss of culture itself. For, whether we like it or not, it is an historical and anthropological fact that culture without cultus does not exist. Pieper puts it thus: “However dim the recollection of the association may have become in men’s minds, a feast ‘without gods,’ and unrelated to worship, is quite simply unknown.” What is left to set man free from work and politics, for the heartiest enjoyment of his fellow creatures on earth, together, across the generations, even across the centuries? [...]

Here no doubt some may object. “But we do have a culture,” you say. “You might look down upon it as shoddy or stupid, but it is still a culture. We have sports, just as the Greeks had. We have music, we have plays. We’re Americans.” First of all, it is not true.

For example, we certainly do not have sports just as the Greeks had, unless there are some hidden communities in the mountains whose men come together to worship and to honor the gods of baseball by displaying the excellence they owe to those gods. Our sports are businesses, and the players businessmen; and our vacant lots are in fact vacant lots, vacant of boys impersonating, in mimic play, the idiosyncrasies of their heroes. [More.]

There's a lot of discussion at present about Christians engaging modern culture on its own terms. This is an important issue. Children must have milk first before they move on to meat. But they still need meat. We must preserve faith in Jesus Christ, but we must also preserve the cultural tools of literacy, reason, and memory that make the communication of that faith possible through the generations, and permit a more full-blooded flowering of the Christian soul.

To some degree, this is a regional argument. Were we in China I would be inclined to stress, in addition to a traditional understanding of Christianity (with both its western Greek and Hebrew roots), a Christianized Confucianism as well. Both are keys to making sense of our various fragmented and semi-decrepit civilizations, East and West. Note when I speak of Western civilization, I am less concerned with specific social and political organizations than our culture and philosophy and way of thinking (our Hebrew theology and our Greek reason and all that flowed from it). Politics and culture are related at a certain level, but I am inclined to think that is is an issue that we can agree on outside of such party concerns.

We must first reach modern man through his desires and yearnings, must show him his yearnings are fulfilled in Christ, but once that is done, we also have to take him aside and say, "this is how you think and reason like a being created in the image of God."

There is very little to be gained by dialogue with contemporary culture if we do not also elevate it, shake it hard, and slap it out of its stupor. We are losing, slowly, all that it means to be human, substituting bovine contentment for true joy. We have to teach our fellow humans to be human again.

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