Tuesday 30 December 2014

Advent Saturnalia

Ah, this happy time of year - I talk in generalities, as the news is as ghastly as I remember since the Boxing Day Tsunami. But amid the remains of the tinsel, the reversal of attitudes to life, death, reward and punishment that has happened as the world  - or at least the ageing Western portion of it - has become increasingly less religious, is drawn ever clearer.

For those with eyes to see, and a feel for liturgical rhythm, things have been turned upside down. If you live in contact with the world, and yet are not of it, maybe you see it better. The way we have inflicted Saturnalia on Advent - or maybe vice-versa.

The liturgical narrative, the myth of midwinter, if you like, goes like this. Things get bad, and then they will get better. The plants die, the ground freezes, the sun goes dark. But then the sun magically fights back. The daylight holds steady, then increases. The coldest of winter is yet to come, but the darkness has not overcome the light. The sun is coming back.

And the Christian myth - repeated though the ages, even - oddly - in the Antipodes where the world and seasons are upside down - goes much the same. In November and December the story is of foreboding, of hope that glints through through darkness. Of death and judgement and last things. But the culmination of this is Christmas - the annual reminder of Messiah's birth. We go into the new year knowing that God is with us, and we will be with him for all time.

Whereas the modem narrative of Christmas is this - we eat and drink and are merry all through December, at endless works dos, parties at friends', nights down the pub. And then we stagger out into the new year, bloated and dyspeptic, and realise that we have sinned and must make amends. The papers run stories of liver disease, obesity and trouble in A and E. And for our salvation we look to the gym, a dry January, and the promise to ourselves of that most failed of all human pledges. "Never again." And every year we promise ourselves we will be better. But every year we are older, and deeper in decay, and less able to restore ourselves by our own willpower and physical efforts.

What has happened? We have run the myth in reverse. Now we have our fun first, and then we have the grim foreboding of a joyless, arduous, abstemious New Year.

As we stand on the verge of another Secular Advent, I wish you joy, hope and good cheer. God knows, we're gonna need it.


  1. At last I see the virtue of the Russian Orthodox adherence to the Old Calendar.

  2. This is so true, though I hadn't seen it like that before. We do run the myth in reverse! And And the secular Advent is an Advent with no one to look forward to - bit like the Narnian always-winter-and-never-Christmas.

  3. Antonia said it first. I feel every year that I'm fighting a losing battle in trying to observe Advent and Christmas in the right order and to the proper extent. The decorations are still up in our house!


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