Monday, December 14, 2009

Behold, a mystery

Behold, I show you a mystery;
We shall not all sleep, but we shall all be changed.

— 1st Corinthians 15

I do my best to stay out of stores and, particularly, malls in Christmas shopping season. Online shopping sites are a godsend for buying presents while running out the clock until it is safe again.

It's not only because of the crowds, which drive me spare, but also because of cliché Christmas music meant to put you in a buying mood. Yet it's unavoidable; it pours out in Safeway, CVS, radio stations highbrow and lowbrow, and probably from those terrible gas pumps that play commercials while you fill your car's tank.


This year I've noticed something, although it may have been a trend for some time that never registered on me. The Christmas tunes, in line with the best PC orthodoxy, have been scoured of religious content. No "Come, all ye faithful … " that I've noticed. (Come to think of it, no "White Christmas," either!) Instead, lots of insipid jingle bells, dashing through the snow.

But the song I believe I've heard the most this year is "Rockin' Around the Christmas Tree." Not only the original Brenda Lee version — unfortunately, almost the only thing that considerably talented young lady is remembered for today — but two or three other "updated" recordings as well, which suggests that it fills a felt need in the merchandising world.

Now this is not going to be another of those pieces decrying the commercialization of Christmas. We live in a commercial culture and, if stores must make the most of it to stay in business, nothing anyone says is going to make a dime's difference.


But we, as individuals and families, still have a choice in how we relate to the holiday.

For most people, it's an occasion for decorating, family gatherings, and partying. Nothing wrong with that. But Christmas, like all holidays that are tied (however frayed the connection) with religions or ancient traditions, gains in worth when it reminds us of the mysteries of our existence.

This has nothing to do with any particular creed or interpretation. Our long-ago ancestors were poorer and worse off in many ways than we are, but they partook of one source of inspiration that we have nearly lost. Their world was full of things, dead to us, that were of the greatest psychological and spiritual meaning.

The sun and moon weren't bodies of fire and ash, they represented different aspects of the psyche. The wind came from Boreas or Zephyros, not a pressure differential or something (those of us who aren't meteorologists aren't quite sure). Shakespeare's Duke in
As You Like It found "tongues in trees, books in the running brooks/Sermons in stones, and good in everything."


Once in a while, such feelings drill through the routine and scientific materialism of our modern world. Not many people can observe the bud exploding into a flower or leaf in spring without an inkling that they have witnessed a mystery, though the botanists can explain it in purely scientific language.

Such language is useful, for scientists and often for laymen as well, on one level. But it doesn't get to the heart of things, for all its endless detail. Why are you seated in your chair, rather than floating around the room (unless you are reading this in a space station)? Gravity. What's that? It's a word etymologically derived from heaviness. Why are you heavy? The force of gravity. You're heavy because you're heavy. To my knowledge, no scientist has explained why objects are attracted to one another in specific ways, exquisitely balanced by the tendency to fly apart through centripetal force.


Let us use this ancient festival of Christmas to remind ourselves that behind the phenomena of life are the numina — or if that's too fancy a word, meanings that hide from us most of the time.

How can there be billions and billions of snowflakes, no two of them identical?

Where do words go after they're spoken?

How do the young become the old?

I haven't the answers, and even if I did, they wouldn't be answers for you, unless you found them. Only behold, I show you a mystery.



Kilroy said...

tongues in trees, books in the running brooks/Sermons in stones, and good in everything

I can't imagine anybody today coming up with anything so tranquil and profound.

Anonymous said...

"To my knowledge, no scientist has explained why objects are attracted to one another in specific ways"

Because massive objects move along timelike geodesics in four-dimensional spacetime, whose curvature is determined by the stress-energy tensor of all the mass and energy present, neglecting electromagnetic and nuclear interactions. Specifically the Ricci tensor minus one-half times the Ricci scalar times the metric tensor is proportional to the stress-energy tensor (the well-known Einstein field equations).

Rick Darby said...


If you say so, that's how. But why?

Anonymous said...

The science or physics of any phenomenon is never really understood until it can be explained in simple terms, which are at the same time complete.

Only when such understanding has been achieved, that any further progress can be made.

Anonymous said...

Happy Christmas all.

MaryJ said...

I actually heard some religious Christmas music in a 7-11 store recently. It was so uncommon it was almost shocking.

Merry Christmas all!

yih said...

I have heard 'White Christmas' here and there. But like you I am hitting Christmas music burnout and quickly.
By the time Christmas afternoon arrives I literally get nausea upon hearing any more of it.
I have no idea why no two snowflakes are alike but I still appreciate their beauty.

MaryJ said...

I actually heard Ave Maria being played in a greeting card shop last night. I guess they felt they could get away with it because it was in Latin.