Yes, Christmas cards are in the works, snow has finally fallen in Grand Lake, my wife is setting up our winter village and creche in the bay window. And the annual national Christmas celebration is well underway. For better and worse.
I do share the concerns of many about this major glut of consumption in a world of such suffering, and the only marginal presence of Christ in this whole hoopla. Yet I do welcome fragile efforts to bring greater tolerance and openness into this season, some actual celebration of our religious and racial diversity.
Here, though, I’d like to take another kind of look at our Christmas or Seasonal celebrations. I’d like to ask what makes real celebration, a real experience of festivity, possible. And I’d like to explore the idea that real celebration of any sort is not possible without some kind of grounding in the experience of worship.
Worship is my real subject in this present writing which makes it my second recent posting on prayer. In another recent posting about the Catholic Church’s 2-year synodal process, I had argued that “We must work for a further renewal of worship in our church.” I admitted there that “I am not sure how we best imagine further renewal. [Yet] I am convinced that worship is a fundamental human need and aspiration.”
A good friend responded with a good question: “even though it is frequently invoked, I have always been somewhat puzzled by the term ‘worship’. What do you mean by worship?” A very good question that sent me searching through dictionaries and other resources, but mainly searching my own experience.
My sense that worship is fundamental to our humanity and to the possibility of real celebration and festivity, is something I learned from one of the best books I’ve ever read, Josef Pieper’s Leisure the Basis of Culture. First published after the Second World War and still in print, this book by a very important German Thomist philosopher argues that Western societies have become “worlds of total work.” They are so dominated by the reality of work that there is little room for anything unrelated to that most necessary aspect of life. Such a society has been growing for centuries. It reached an apex of sorts with the total mobilization on all sides during World War II. It is a world that has created great wealth along with great inequality and much violence, all at the cost of human spiritual impoverishment. It’s the world in which we today live – virtually all of us both East and West. A world where we value ourselves almost entirely for the work we do, and we spend all of our free time – even our parties and holidays (no longer “holy” days) – getting rest and relaxation in order to return to work. Put another way, it’s workdays and nighttime entertainments.
Real leisure – time and activity that is not related to the necessities of work, that is truly free for the celebration of all those aspects of our humanity unrelated to immediate needs – real leisure and real celebration or festivity are possible, Pieper argues, only when grounded in the experience of divine worship.
And what, for Pieper, is such worship? It is not necessarily something that happens in churches or in the name of religion. For too much religious “worship” these days has become just part of the R&R required for work. Often simply a better “escape” from work than other entertainments; often simply a kind of cheerleading for the national purpose (which, of course, is production and consumption).
Real worship must involve the divine, the gods, and for most of us in the West at least some vague sense of the God of Abraham and Jesus.
Thus the dictionaries provide synonyms such as adoration and veneration and reverence, praise and glory.
For Pieper worship involves some real sacrifice, especially a sacrifice of our time, a real movement of our spirits from focus on necessary things to a personal and communal openness and reverence. Yet he goes further. We cannot make this happen (for to make things happen is the fundamental character of the world of work). Rather we open ourselves to the inspiration, even the command of the Divine – Keep Holy the Sabbath (with its analogues in other religions).
In this sense – both our openness and the ‘incoming’ of the divine – worship becomes an experience of ecstasy (which is the opposite of escape). Though the word “ecstasy” may more typically mean a simple (!) stillness of spirit than any speaking in tongues; more typically a heightened awareness of goodness or justice than any mystical rapture.
To all this I will add one key element implied in all of the above. Worship is communal. It is the full-throated song the Christian congregation raised in “Holy God We Praise Thy Name” and “Amazing Grace”. It is the low congregational murmuring of the Rosary at Catholic wakes. The street quiet of Muslim prayer at appointed times in Dar Es Salaam and Cairo, and in mosques and offices in New York and Denver. And the immensely colorful dancing and chanting of so many Hindu festivals.
Even the isolated hermitess joins continually in the larger prayer of the saints arising from every corner of the globe.
There is more that need be said about worship, distinguishing the authentic from the awful, the real from the phony. And lamenting, with Pieper, the so many ways that the world of work has coopted the reality of worship and blocked the restoration of real leisure. Sunday (or Saturday for most Jews) is, after all, time for coffee and the Times, for laundry and shopping, for the ball game or the zoo.
But at the moment this is the best I can come up with in answer to my friend’s good question.
So I return to Christmas and the possibility of real celebration, real festivity, even in and with the totalized pressures of Christmas as organized frenzy.
I do believe that very many of those who write cards, set up a creche, go to a Christmas worship service – that very many do experience at least some remnant sense, and perhaps a still-vibrant sense of real worship. As do, I believe, my largely secular Jewish friends who celebrate Hannukah and other festivals. As do those many minds and hearts, of whatever faith, join in reverence (albeit expressed in different ways) for the celebration of a marriage, or for the welcoming of a newborn, or in various funeral rites.
I do believe, then, that the actual experience of celebration remains possible among us however residual its roots. At this time of year and many others.
Pieper, it seems to me, is right about the big picture, about the shifts in culture and society which diminish the regularity (and the reality!) of worship. Yet on the smaller scale, even on New York’s 5th Avenue with all its frantic commercialization, there will be flashes of real celebration.
Because there the gift of worship, the grace for it, is given still and received. Even if it’s still considered ephemeral by the standards of the real world.
Here my sermon ends. I hope for and await such moments of celebration this holiday season. I hope we all find occasions to lift up hearts and minds even if just for a moment now and again.