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Sunday, 11 May 2008

Festivals are good for the soul

The BBC Radio 4 programme Thinking Allowed, and the latest edition of Transmission have fascinating pieces about celebrating festivals.

The Thinking Allowed item was about paganism. Paganism, as practised these days, has its origins not in the mists of antiquity but in the early to mid 20th century, apparently. Gerald Gardner's book on Wicca published in 1940 was a landmark. (What? They'll be telling us next that the druids had nothing to do with Stonehenge!) But that is by the way.

The interesting thing is that paganism is largely about celebrating - the seasons, the divine in nature, the goddess and so on. It is heavily involved in rituals. In fact its commonest expression is in rituals, mostly rituals in groups. There is chanting and dancing. And the number of pagans in this country is growing.

Then the wonderful Michelle Guiness writes about the Jewish celebrations she grew up with, and comparing them with the pale versions she met in Christianity. One example:
When my wedding finally came, to a non-Jewish man, it left me with the same vague feelings of disappointment I have for most of the other rites of passage I have celebrated in the Church. There was no canopy suggesting the home we would have, no drinking from the same cup reflecting the life we would share, no stamping on a glass symbolising the vulnerability of the relationship and the commitment involved in ensuring it remains intact. There was definitely no being hoisted up on a chair, like my bridegroom, in two separate circles of men and women, and whirled round and round until the community, exhausted, finally handed us over to one another. In fact, there was none of the colourful symbolism suggested in the Song of Songs.

Perhaps it is this lack of symbolism, as well as the exploitative and prohibitive cost of the ceremony, that has made it seem such an irrelevance to so many couples today. We have been unable to convey the importance of community and public commitment, to make the concept of ‘sacrament’ accessible.
The whole article (follow the link above) is stimulating. It made me wonder how Christians have managed to suck the life and the wonder out of the festivals and celebrations we have inherited.

Take baptism, for instance. Most churches don't 'baptise' at all. Baptism means dipping. The churches sprinkle a drop or two of water over a child's head and hope it doesn't make the child cry. It would never do to take the child and plunge it into water, so that it really symbolises a big and important change in its life. And the Christening Robe, handed down from great-granny, isn't put on after the baptism as it should be, when the child has been dried off after its bath, the white robe symbolising the new life given by God. It's worn the whole time. Where's the ceremonial gone? Where's the festivity? The real celebration is at the Victoria Club or wherever, after the 'church' bit is over. That's when people really begin to rejoice, and welcome the child.

And what about Holy Communion? The words that are used talk about sharing one loaf, and what happens? Each person gets one separate little disc. Where's the sharing there? And anyway, we have overwhelmed the important thing - the sharing of bread and wine - with a torrent of words, words, and more words.

The time when we seem to get the Holy Communion right, as it were, in Street, is the Maundy Thursday Passover. Back to our Jewish roots.

Don't get me started about bodily positions. Why not use our bodies to walk in procession, to stand in reverence (as we would if the Queen entered) or even to kneel, rather than stay stolidly sitting for everything except singing songs? As I say, don't get me started.

Next Sunday is Trinity Sunday, the Name Day of our C of E churches in Street, and Walton as well. If a group of Jews, or Pagans, had something like that to celebrate, what do you think they would do? Something that included movement, chanting, eating and drinking, probably. What shall we do? Well, I don't know about the other churches, but at the Parish Church there will be some special music at least, and a procession to mark the ancient Sacred Place, and 1400 years of Christian worship. Come at 6 pm and take part in the festivities.

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