No Pope No Party |
I like listening to music from a jazz album entitled Joy in Spite of Everything, composed by the Italian jazz pianist Stefano Bollani. I find it upbeat and uplifting music. One of the compositions in the album is called, intriguingly, No Pope No Party. This refers to a tradition in papal elections. White smoke emerging from the Sistine Chapel in Rome signals the election of a new Pope and a cause for celebration by the cardinal-electors, if not an actual celebration party. Conversely, black smoke emerging means no Pope as yet and presumably, no party.
My address this morning is about the white smoke. It is, unapologetically, about celebration, a celebration of celebration. The topic, I hope, is timely given that this Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent. Advent is the season of the liturgical year observed in most Christian denominations as a time of expectant waiting and preparation for the celebration of the Nativity of Christ at Christmas. Advent means ‘coming’ in Latin - the coming of Jesus into the world. Christians generally use the four Sundays and weeks of Advent to prepare and remember the real meaning of Christmas.
But remembering the real meaning of Christmas is a daunting task, particularly during Advent itself, when commercial and material pressures can cloud our understanding and celebration of the religious and spiritual dimension. The high street collides with the Nativity crib. The secular and the sacred comingle in sometimes stressful ways. Workaday human tasks can submerge a connection to the transcendent and the divine.
I have been attending Sunday service at this Unitarian church for some ten years. During my early years of attendance I was somewhat taken aback when, in her address one Sunday, our minister Rev. Bridget Spain, suggested that Jesus may have taken, even enjoyed, a glass of wine. The God, and Son of God, of my familiarity were stern, disciplined, and at times given to retribution. Drinking wine, worse taking pleasure in it, were not part of my understanding of the divine. Drinking wine, for good or bad, was a human pursuit.
But as the years moved on, so my reflection on the divine. I came to accept that the human and the divine are inextricably entwined. Metaphors, as explanations of meaning, only work when they resonate with our daily, at times messy, lives. My delight with the metaphorical richness of the Bible stories and parables, linked over time to my understanding, however fallible, of what it is to be human, led me to see the secular and the sacred, the worldly and the spiritual, the human and the divine, as imperceptibly interwoven. This interwovenness is expressed beautifully in the words of Pierre Teilhard de Chardin, the French idealist philosopher, Jesuit priest and paleontologist. I quote: ‘You are not a human being in search of a spiritual experience. You are a spiritual being immersed in a human experience.’ (End of quote.) Balancing and navigating the human and the divine ? in whatever you perceive the divine to be ? is an ongoing process, even struggle, that finds resolution, however temporarily, on occasions. But the struggle provides reward in giving meaning and insight into how to lead a worthwhile life in a spirit of Unitarianism.
My address is about celebration. A fascinating celebration is recounted in The Gospel according to John ? the wedding feast at Cana. There is certainly divine intervention here. Jesus converts water to wine, a generous 150 gallons at least. But most other aspects of the story are very recognisably everyday human concerns. I quote John (2: 1-5). On the third day there was a wedding at Cana in Galilee, and the mother of Jesus was there. 2Jesus also was invited to the wedding with his disciples. 3When the wine ran out, the mother of Jesus said to him, “They have no wine.” And Jesus said to her, “Woman, what does this have to do with me? My hour has not yet come.” His mother said to the servants, “Do whatever he tells you.”
The fear and possible shame of a host running out of food or drink at a celebratory occasion is very real. Jesus’ action enables the feast to continue merrily, indeed with the added plus that the new wine is of first-rate quality. The chief steward at the wedding feast says to the bridegroom, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ (John 2:10).
The changing of water into wine at the wedding at Cana is generally regarded as the first miracle in Jesus’ public ministry. He will go on to perform at least six other such miracles or ‘signs’ of his divinity, in order, in the words of John, ‘to reveal his glory’. These others are about healing, raising the dead, feeding a multitude, and walking on water. Why did Jesus choose the wedding at Cana as the first sign of his public ministry? Granted his mother did ask his help. But John detects a reluctance initially on the part of Jesus to intervene. Perhaps he came to the view that a wedding celebration, a great family and communal get together, with a couple about to face the challenges of life ahead, and the possibility of new human life being created together, was indeed a most suitable occasion to interweave the divine and the human. The miraculous and the eternal might coevolve with mere humanity in all its impermanence.
The wedding feast at Cana is much imagined in paintings, particularly those of the Renaissance and early Enlightenment. A cursory look at a number of these confirms a joyful scene but also a surprisingly inclusive one. Women fully partake in the festivities. It is, after all, the entreaty of Mary, mother of Jesus, that ensures the celebration continues. The great Venetian painter, Tintoretto, depicts the feast with women seated at the table, in the centre of his painting, highlighted in a wonderful white luminosity ¬– and actively engaged in distributing the new wine.
Let us turn to a more recent celebration. When our Church reopened with mandatory limited attendance in summer, a goodly number of the congregation, usually a dozen or so, went across to St Stephen’s Green afterwards. They, or rather we, sat on the grass or on fold-up chairs, suitably distanced, drank coffee, ate cake, and talked for an hour or so. The conversation was easy and funny, but as with Unitarians, it often got serious, even philosophical. The French have the concept of the café philosophique, or café-philo, where those present can enjoy their coffee or glass of wine while earnestly discussing the existential meaning of life. Well, for a glorious couple of summer months we had our jardin-philo. And the time is memorably celebrated in a poem by the one of the jardin’s habitués, the redoubtable Maeve Edwards. Entitled ‘Coffee in the Time of Covid’, it was published in the September edition of Oscailt.
Coffee in the Time of Covid
Who would have thought we’d be sprawled on the grass,
Jane in a fold up chair, The August day
warm, a gap between the showers.
Passers-by smile as wisps of conversation waft on the breeze:
- The Apostrophe Preservation Society;
- Ruby Wax;
- Lemon Soap and Blazes Boylan.
Who are these people making daisy chains and talking of semi colons with such ardour ?
Tá athas orm !
The Unitarians are on fire
in Stephen’s Green!
The Damer Hall
never had it this good.
We have lost two great poets this year, Eavan Boland and Derek Mahon. Evan Boland’s beautifully elegiac poem ‘Quarantine’ reminds us how the memory of the Great Hunger still resides within the DNA of each Irish person. Derek Mahon’s determinately optimistic poem ‘Everything is Going to be All Right’ has captured our national mood in the face of Covid.
So, I would like to tell you a story about mere poets, the gods, and happy coincidence. This story takes place at the first International Writers’ Conference, held in Dun Laoghaire in June 1988. The three-day conference, which coincided with Bloomsday, was sponsored by the Irish Arts Council as one of the highlights of the then Dublin Millennium Festival. The theme of the conference was ‘Literature as Celebration’.
An International Writers’ Conference was not my usual stomping ground. I attended because of a chance street encounter with a longstanding friend from childhood, Lar Cassidy, then the literature officer of the Arts Council, and the organiser-in-chief and director of the conference. He sold me on it, I went, and what a three days I had! Some 30 authors, mostly international, participated – the great and the good from the world of literature as far as I could see. Poets were well represented, including the Russian American poet, Joseph Brodsky, the Caribbean poet, Derek Walcott, and our own Seamus Heaney. There was lots of lively debate. Brodsky, for example, declared during his address, ‘If the priests can’t take a stand for the Ten Commandments, at least a writer can.’
At the morning coffee break on the final day, Friday, I found myself, in an absolute coincidence, in the company, of Brodsky, Walcott and Heaney, with just two other attendees, while Brodsky was giving forth on the beauty of Venice. What I did not know at the time, was that Brodsky had just been awarded the Nobel prize for literature. Derek Walcott would be awarded the same prize in 1992, and Seamus Heaney in 1995, just seven years later. Thus, in retrospect, I would come to see myself, albeit immodestly, as being in the company of the gods that Friday morning. Even today, it seems an incredible and happy coincidence. But it does lead one to respect and celebrate coincidence. As someone once said, ‘Coincidence is God’s way of remaining anonymous’.
Returning to Advent. This Christmas will be different, other than for children for whom it will remain as wondrous as ever. Myself, I like Christmas time, but find it goes on too long and too relentlessly. I often feel caught up in a whirlwind. Is an alternative possible?
Slow Food is a global, grassroots movement, founded in Italy in 1989 to prevent the disappearance of local food cultures and traditions, counteract the rise of fast life, and combat people’s dwindling interest in the food they eat, where it comes from, and how our food choices affect the world around us. The Slow Food movement believes food is tied to many other aspects of life, including culture, politics, agriculture, and the environment. In sum, it seeks to resist the McDonaldization of civic society.
So, I dream of a Slow Christmas, less frenetic, and less frantic. A Slow Christmas (Slow with a capital S) might allow us to enjoy our family, friends, food, drink, and partying in a more measured way a more mindful celebration that gives us a chance to reflect on Christmas’ deeper meaning. That meaning is inevitably bound up in the Nativity and the story of the birth of Jesus Christ in a stable in Bethlehem. Whatever meaning we each choose to find in the Nativity, whether profoundly religious, or metaphorically rich, or just a Biblical tale of migration and birth, it remains a truly great story.
Again, not surprisingly, many painters have sought to depict the Nativity scene in the stable, including the great Italian painter, Caravaggio. His painting ‘Adoration of the Shepherds’ recounts, after the Gospel of Luke, that ‘when the shepherds went in haste, they found Mary and Joseph, and the baby, who was lying in the manger’ (2:16). Caravaggio, in his typical style, paints the scene with realism, dramatic colour, and profound emotion. Its breath-taking beauty enables the viewer to witness the traditional holiness of the Nativity scene, being enriched with a narrative of ordinary human persistence.
I conclude with the Nigerian-American writer and art historian, Teju Cole, describing Caravaggio’s canvas. ‘The painting is a pool of burnt umber, swirling around the placental red of the robes worn by the Virgin and one of the shepherds. This is no sweet family scene, but rather a document of roughness and need. Why should a newborn and his mother be in such a dirty place, barely protected from the elements? What corner of a refugee camp is this? Why do these people not have a home?
I wish you all a Slow and peaceful Advent.
Dublin Unitarian Church