Saturday, February 4, 2023
Thursday, February 2, 2023
The familiar carol concludes on the 12th day, but today is actually the 40th - and final - day of Christmas. In Catholic countries, it is a common custom for the nativity scene to remain in its place in churches until today. So eleven years ago at this season, while I was studying at "Saints' School" in Rome, I took advantage of that unique opportunity of almost a full month between my early-January arrival and Candlemas in which to visit the various presepe, which were on display in Rome’s many churches.
In the western, Latin Church, today is currently called the Presentation of the Lord, although for several centuries it was also known as the Purification of the Blessed Virgin Mary. According to the Gospel [Luke 2:22-40], Mary and Joseph took the child Jesus to Jerusalem according to the law of Moses in order to observe two important religious obligations. The first was the ordinary obligation in that society to be purified after childbirth, reflecting ancient beliefs about the sacredness of blood, and the requirement of ritual purification after any direct contact with blood. The second concerned the special status and religious responsibilities of a first-born son (because of God’s having spared Israel’s first-born at the time of the Exodus from Egypt).
But, whatever the official title, a common popular title for today’s celebration in the West has long been Candlemas Day, because of the Blessing of Candles and the Procession - originally in Rome an early morning, pre-dawn procession, somewhat penitential in character – with which the more solemn celebration of Mass today begins. This replaced an earlier pre-Christian Roman pagan custom. According to the medieval traditions recounted in The Golden Legend: "On the calends of February the Romans honored Februa the mother of Mars the god of war, by lighting the city with candles and torches throughout the night of that day. ... Since it is hard to relinquish such customs and the Christians, converted from paganism, had difficulty giving them up, Pope Sergius transmuted them, decreeing that the faithful should honor the hold mother of the Lord on this day by lighting up the whole world with lamps and candles."
The name Candlemas calls attention, obviously, to the blessed candles, but also to their light – and to Jesus as the One whom that light symbolizes. In the Gospel, the aged Simeon recites the canticle, “Now, Master, you may let your servant go in peace.” In the Roman Rite, this canticle, known as the Nunc Dimittis, is an important part of Night Prayer (Compline). Concerning this, the great 20th-century liturgical scholar Pius Parsch wrote: “As we sing it we see Simeon holding the Child Jesus in his arms and then, with grateful heart, retiring from his earthly service to God. We too are in the Lord’s service. At the close of day we hold the Savior in our arms, mystically speaking; we hold Him in faith, in grace, in the sacraments, especially the Sacrament of the Altar. Fervently we thank God for His blessings; and we are prepared, if it be His will, to take our leave from the world.”
Coming close to midway between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, a secular version of Candlemas is Groundhog Day. (The fact that both mark this seasonal signpost is obviously not coincidental.) Even those who may never have heard of Candlemas have heard of Groundhog Day and connect it with the change of seasons. While the weather is still wintry, the days are noticeably getting longer. Whereas Christmas comes at the mid-point of the winter’s darkness, with the year’s shortest day and its correspondingly longest night, Candlemas comes at the mid-point between the winter solstice and the spring equinox, the transition (according to one older way of reckoning the seasons) from winter to spring. Soon, day and night, light and dark will be equal. So this last of the winter light festivals invites us to look ahead to what these winter light festivals are meant to symbolize.
Meanwhile, at the same time as we recall with joy the Lord’s entry into his Temple: and suddenly there will come to the temple the Lord whom you seek (Malachi 3:1-4), we hear wise old Simeon’s words to Mary, the first reference to what lies ahead, the first reference to the cross. Behold, this child is destined … to be a sign that will be contradicted – and you yourself a sword will pierce – so that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed.
So, even as we take one last look back at winter and Christmas, Candlemas looks ahead to spring and Lent, and reminds us that the point of Christmas is Easter. Meanwhile, Simeon and Anna’s encounter with the infant Jesus in the Jerusalem Temple points us toward our own encounter with the Risen Christ here and now.
Tuesday, January 31, 2023
The annual National Prayer Breakfast will take place in Washington, DC, this coming Thursday, February 2. It is not an event that is usually on most people's radar. The only occasion it was on mine, the only time I can ever recall commenting on it, was three years ago, coinciding with the first impeachment and acquittal of President Trump, who spoke at the event (as presidents do). At that time, I wrote:
The annual tradition of the National Prayer Breakfast (originally called the Presidential Prayer Breakfast) goes back to 1953, the first year of the Eisenhower Administration. It is held every year on the first Thursday in February and often features speeches by special guests as well as the President. Out of an apparent desire on the part of Congress to return the event somewhat back to its original spirit, a new organization, the "National Prayer Breakfast Foundation," will oversee the event this year, and the number of the attendees is being limited to members of Congress, the Administration, their families, and their guests. (It will still be live-streamed online and on C-SPAN.)
In the United Kingdom and the Scandinavian countries, for example, the presence of an Established Church facilitates religion's decorative role in civil life - part of what Walter Bagehot called the "dignified" dimension of a country's constitution. Even without the benefit of formal religious establishment, displays of religious ritual and, in particular, invocations of religious language and exercises of public prayer have been a ubiquitous part of American civic life from the very beginning. The National Prayer Breakfast is an honorable part of that long tradition. As its misuse in recent years by Republicans' religious allies has made evident, however, the line between dignified prayer and idolatrous prayer can be an easy one to cross.
Saturday, January 28, 2023
We of the "Baby Boom" generation have more or less always taken it for granted that we would be at the center of society's attention - and in recent decades at least the holders of most of the power in American society. That is largely still true, but changing. Hence, this latest book on Boomers and their power, The Aftermath: The Last Days of the Baby Boom and the Future of Power in America (Viking, 2023), by Philip Bump, a national columnist for The Washington Post. As the author observes about us boomers: "They opened their eyes and everyone around them was working to meet their exceptional needs."
In case anyone doesn't already know, the "baby boom" refers to the generation born in the aftermath of World War II, the great period of post-war prosperity from 1946 through 1964, when the annual average of births int he U.S. was around 4 million (compared with the 1930s average of 2.4 million). "In 1945, the year before the boom began, the population of the United States was about 140 million. Over the next 19 years, 76 million babies were born."
Born in the most prosperous era in American history, we boomers have accumulated material wealth and all that goes with that. Obviously, individual boomers are rich, poor, and everywhere in between, but as a group we Have been wealthy and powerful. We are 23% of the population, but are 43% of the country's homeowners, for example. "Since 1989, those aged 55 and older have always controlled at least 54 percent of the wealth in the country. By 2019, that figure was over 70 percent."
We are also whiter than subsequent cohorts, which is due to the very specific circumstance of having been born in the period of U.S. history with little immigration, thanks to the restrictive legislation of 1924. My grandmother was an immigrant, as were several aunts and uncles, but no one I knew of my own generation.
What that means for the future, Bump shows, may be less straightforward than some have assumed.
Given the complex but hardly insignificant continued role of religion in our politics, it is noteworthy that while somewhat less religious than our predecessors, boomers are still significantly more so than those waiting to replace us. "The boomers were less inclined to embrace religious identifiers than their elders, yes, but they still embraced them. And they did and do so to a more robust degree than their own kids, over whom religious institutions have been wringing hands and for whom those institutions have been crafting appeals." Indeed, it is still the case that "More boomers go to church one or more times a week than never go."
Politically, boomers vote more and are overrepresented in Congress. We are also more likely to identify with one of the two political parties. "Boomers were more likely to be members of one of the parties, with 67 percent identifying as Democrats or Republicans. Among millennials, only 54 percent did so." And it is significant that the only age group Trump won in 2016 "were those aged 50 and up—that is, the baby boomers and those older."
Bump's account is journalistically engaging. He interviews the person officially identified as the "first baby boomer" (born January 1, 1946), and he entertainingly rents a golf cart to explore around The Villages, the infamously enormous senior living community in Florida, some of whose residents call themselves "frogs," since they are there until they "croak."
On the other hand, he seems never to have met a number he didn't appreciate, and the book is filled with an overwhelming number of charts and graphs (128 by one reader's count). That's probably information overload, but one can not look at the charts and just read the text and still get the message. There is, perhaps, too much of that (text) as well, as he seems determined to examine as much as he can about America's changing landscape. At times, it feels that the book will never end, much as it must feel to many that the baby boomers' presence and dominance will never end. But, of course, we will eventually end. And so does the book. In the process, he succeeds in providing the best on-offer analysis of the implications on the coming generational change in American politics.
Friday, January 27, 2023
I have to admit I have struggled to figure out what to say about Tár, Todd Field's 2022 hit, "Best Film of the year" according to the New York film Critics Circle and others, and of course one of the nominees for the upcoming oscars. It stars Cate Blanchett, who performs brillliantly as star conductor Lydia Tár, whose imperious (and, by some accounts, abusive) behavior dominates the movie and precipitates her eventual dramatic downfall. The film is susceptible of multiple interpretations. It can be seen as a reasoned attack on "cancel culture." It can also be seen as a justified defense thereof. It can be seen as a critique of how contemporary identity politics and "cancel culture" can corrupt the arts, education, and human relationships. It can also be seen as illustrating how widespread abuses of power (to which contemporary identity politics and "cancel culture" are in part a reaction) can corrupt the arts, education, and human relationships. The fact that the film is simultaneously susceptible of such contradictory interpretations highlights both the film's complexity and the real-world complexity of those issues and perhaps provides a vehicle for reflecting upon them further. Meanwhile, while some see Lydia Tár's triumphant career careening to a deserved (or, at least, predictable) collapse, others see a confusing mix of real and imaginary sequences, which leave her final fate uncertain.
Without wading into the "cancel culture" quagmire, I think it fair to say that the film portrays the Berlin Philharmonic's star conductor Lydia Tár (born plain Linda Tarr from Staten Island) as a human disaster - not, perhaps, unlike many others who hold positions of comparable power. She is married to Sharon, who is also the orchestra's First Violin, and she depends upon and tyrannizes her personal assistant, Francesca. It is implied that she has groomed other young aspiring musicians in the past, a pattern apparently being repeated in real time with a new, young cellist, Olga. Unsurprisingly, her behavior seems to be recognized as such by those around her - and apparently tolerated by them all, at least as long as they have to. Meanwhile, one of her previous targets, Krista, has been blacklisted by her after their relationship went wrong, and Krista's suicide seems to become the event that triggers a professional reckoning, accompanied by all sorts of strange sensitivities to sound, nightmares, and bouts of pain.
A lot is left implied that in reality would need to be cleared up. What exactly happened between Tár and Krista is hardly established beyond doubt. As is often the case, we are in the realm of suspicion and allegation, although there is certainly evidence of Tár's susceptibility to particularly poor judgment in such matters (poor judgment presumably exacerbated by her apparent power to get away with it). On the other hand, Tár's ultimate response to all this seems somewhat out of character (at least as her character has been portrayed thus far in the film). Indeed, her behavior becomes bizarre beyond belief - assuming, of course, that we are still in the realm of real behavior and not fantasy. What exactly are we supposed to think about this remains itself mysterious.