Sunday Night Journal — December 20, 2010
One of the more irritating ways of dismissing the major Christian holidays is to declare that they “celebrate the turning of the seasons” or something of that sort. You know: Christmas marks the winter solstice by placing light and music at the darkest time of year; Easter is about the renewal of life in spring; etc. It’s not that these are wrong, and it is very fitting that these celebrations are placed where they are in the calendar (for the northern hemisphere, and especially for northern latitudes). But they are only a part of the truth, and when put forward as explanations they distort the truth by putting the lesser above the greater.
To treat these holidays as if their purpose is to mark the passage of the seasons is to deny their real meaning. It is a more accurate view of the matter to say that the seasons are used to emphasize the events commemorated by Christmas and Easter than the other way around. The traditional European Christian calendar, with Advent beginning in late autumn, Christmas near the winter solstice, Lent in deep winter, Easter beginning near the spring equinox, and the rest of the year designated as “ordinary time” is a way of organizing the time marked by the passage of the earth around the sun. It sanctifies the seasons but does not make them objects of worship or near-worship. It is not drawn down into them but draws them up into itself. It uses the cycle of seasons to point toward the end of all cycles. Both Christmas and Easter commemorate events that happened once and only once in all of history. And their appearance in history constitutes the beginning of the end of the cycles in which we live.
There are people who are naturally disposed to look on the brighter and warmer side of the earthly cycle, and those who are naturally disposed to look on the darker and colder side: optimists and pessimists, the sanguine and the melancholic. The sanguine can always say, at the winter solstice: the days will now begin to get longer, and summer is coming; things will get better. The melancholic can always say, at the summer solstice: the days will now begin to get shorter, and winter is coming; things will get worse. Each appears to have more or less the same degree of justification for his views. It’s the nature of life in this world that things change, that the very worst situation will either get better or come to an end, and that the very best situation will either get worse or come to an end.
But in the long run the melancholy view of this earthly life is the true one. Yes, in the day-to-day and year-to-year course of life, the results may be about even: day follows night, night follows day. Summer follows winter, winter follows summer. But life and death do not join that dance. Death follows life, and that’s the end of it. In the long run time is the destroyer. Every pleasure, every good thing, will disappear into the past of the one who experiences it, never to be retrieved. New joys may come, but they won’t last, and the time will come when those that are passing will not be replaced by new ones. Eventually the one who experienced them will also pass away into time, and all his experiences disappear with him.
Man is in love, and loves what vanishes: what more is there to say? —Yeats
The melancholic is one who cannot ever entirely forget that time and death are waiting for everything. It is this that make even the sweetest of earthly joys bittersweet to him—this, and the yearning for a joy that neither disappoints nor passes away.
The joy of the melancholic is always in the shadow of his knowledge that it can never be complete or permanent. “I don’t trust happiness. I never did; I never will,” says the country singer Mac Sledge in that wonderful movie Tender Mercies. And who would be so foolish as to tell him he should? Even a life miraculously fortunate and untroubled will come to an end. A young man wins the heart of the beautiful woman for whom he yearns, and promises to love her forever. But even if they live long and happily together, the end will come. They will lose the glow of youth and fade together, growing weak and wrinkled and slow. And no matter how much grace and devotion they bring to those years, time is bearing down on them, and will bring his scythe down to separate them.
The melancholic doesn’t celebrate the seasons so much as accept them, knowing that each brings its pleasures but that none of those will last. He prepares himself to let each one go even as it arrives. And he does this with everything in life.
But if Christianity is true then the melancholic is wrong in the longest run of all, and the sanguine are right. The significance of Christianity is not that it celebrates the cycles but that it ends them, and not by extinction, but by fulfillment. It promises joy that does not disappoint or fade away, and a life that is not closed by death.
It may appear to the sanguine that the melancholic lacks the capacity for joy. I suppose this is sometimes the case, and it’s a frightening thought, because for anyone to lose that capacity truly and completely would be to lose his soul. But I think more often the melancholic is wounded: he will no longer give his heart to a lover who has betrayed him more than once and will certainly do so again. Fault him for being weak or timid, too easily defeated, if you like, but you can’t say he’s unreasonable.
But he ought to celebrate Christmas without any such reservation, because it points toward an eternal Christmas. The lover will return, forever faithful and forever beautiful. And if the melancholic seemed in this life to lack the capacity for joy, well, just wait until you meet him in the new creation.