Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Merry Christmas

My blog is intended for a general readership, but I cannot always suppress my parochial particularities. I hope that whatever holiday you celebrate will be a happy one. If you celebrate none at all, let that abstention be no less happy. But Christmas has always been a big thing in my life, and I cannot pass over it without comment. As my friend Geoffrey said in another context, if you don't like this post, turn over the page until you find one you like better.The historical origins of our iconography of Christmas—snowmen, jingle bells, Yule logs, etc.—are capricious. How did Christmas come to fall in December? Easy: traditional chronology plus observed obstetrics. Otherwise the ripening grain would be an apter Christmas symbol than the pinecone. You may be unaware what time of year, exactly, God created the heavens and the earth; but medieval people had no doubts at all. Chaucer writes of “...the monthe in which the world bigan, /that highte March, whan God first maked man...” This business about the year beginning on January first is simply reinstituted paganism, secular humanism run amuck. Think about what the word “September” must mean. I am at the moment reading in the autobiography of George Sand and was delighted to find in one of her legal documents of 1848 the month abbreviated thus: 7bre. September is the seventh month by God’s reckoning.

These people also knew two other things: first, that God would have made the New Adam at the same season he made the Old Adam, and, second, that it takes nine months for a baby to gestate. In the beginning was the Word; and a child conceived at the beginning will come to term in December. The next bit of historical whismy was that by the high Middle Ages, when people began to pay a little attention to Christmas, Christendom was much more west and north than it was south and east. Hence Christmas cold, Christmas snow.

So it seems appropriate that the days leading up to Christmas have been very cold in Paris. Actually that means only a few degrees below freezing, but it was enough to halt the EuroStar. Overwhelming the mainly symbolic heating arrangements in our apartment was child’s play compared with that feat. There was a little snow, and since the Parisians have no idea what to do with it, it was soon trampled into slush which, when frozen overnight, makes the sidewalks treacherous, especially in the dark, which descends about five in the afternoon and is with us until eight in the morning.

Thus just as the frenzy of the pre-Christmas rush threatens to overwhelm, meteorological conditions have encouraged something very different, slowing down a bit. I find that coerced inactivity is seldom very productive. Sitting for three or four hours in a plastic bucket seat in an airport waiting for a long-delayed flight is my idea of penal servitude, and probably the kind the Constitution calls “cruel and unusual”. But this week I have found myself unwontedly reflective. What I have been reflecting about would not be easy to explain. In one of the fine old Prayer Book phrases it is “all the blessings of this life”. One of the most conspicuous of present blessings is our Paris church home, Trinity Cathedral, aka the “American Cathedral in Paris”.

Trinity Cathedral is a George Edmund Street building, and therefore necessarily gorgeous. Street was one of the great neo-Gothic architects, the peer of the American Ralph Adams Cram, architect of the Princeton Chapel. It was built in the late nineteenth century by the kind of expat Episcopalians you read about in Henry James or, even better, in Edith Wharton, who herself represented the strain in its purest form—upper-crust, cultivated, and moneyed. Such characteristics were perhaps prerequisites for people like Christopher Newman in The American, who could hang out endlessly being thwarted by the odious relatives of Claire de Cintré. A few days ago in the Carnavelet Museum I saw a painting by Jean Béraud dating from 1890 and therefore prior to the dictatorship of internal combustion, showing the street in front of the Cathedral filled with the carriages arriving to fetch the parishioners after Christmas morning service. Unfortunately I can find no photograph of it. There is in it, I think, a hint of the satire more blatantly present in the better-known “The Bourgeois’s Outing”?

This church of expatriates really became a French national treasure at the time of the Great War and the temporary euphoria of the post-Armistice period, no doubt the apogee of Franco-American amity in the twentieth century. You may be surprised to learn that Hemingway and Gertrude Stein were not the only Americans in Paris in the Twenties and Thirties; and quite a few of the others went to church. The Cathedral was the center of culturally and socially elite networks not unlike those of the great New York parishes (especially Trinity and St. Thomas) with which it has historic connections.

Today it has perhaps lost the social cachet it enjoyed in the belle époque, but it has gained something far more precious: social purpose. Its ambitious music program makes it an important contributor to the Parisian cultural scene. Its "Service of Lessons and Carols," which I attended last week, was packed with music enthusiasts. Its work among the poor and the needy—Jesus himself said that “you will always have the poor,” and I can assure you that the European social model has abolished neither poverty nor need—is impressive. There is a strong youth program. And the really little kids just put on the most tolerable of all the Christmas pageants I have ever sat through—a number that is large and positive. Not that the belle époque has entirely vanished, mind you. At Christmas Eve Eucharist two years ago one of the lay readers was Olivia de Havilland. Yes, that would be the Olivia de Havilland who with Vivien Leigh and Clark Gable was one of the stars in the film of Gone With the Wind (1939). [Christmas Eve update: she's still doing it.]

There are many interesting decorations and memorials in and around the church. Among the most intriguing is this replica of the famous Black Madonna of Czestochowa, the national icon of Poland. It was placed in the church in fulfillment of a vow made by a Polish soldier, and it typifies the international and ecumenical flavor of the congregation.

But my experience of it has been chiefly that of a vibrant spiritual community. It has an excellent educational program, and we became swept up in it immediately. But most impressive is the nature of the congregation. Every shade of Anglican is to be found there—and by “shade” I refer both to skin pigment and theological opinion. There must be some nation of the earth that goes unrepresented, but I’d be hard pressed to tell you which that is. Many members are long-term American expatriates; but there are also many French members. There is a fairly serious attempt at bi-lingualism. Many others are like us, migratory birds, short-termers who are nonetheless encouraged and enabled to make quick and bonding friendships.

Though the role of the clergy is too often exaggerated in assessing the nature of Christian community, it surely does not hurt that the Cathedral has two superb full-time priests and an apparently never-failing succession of interesting visitors. The quality of the preaching—the consistent quality--is really extraordinary. I have spent much of my life studying medieval friars, but the first time I ever heard Meister Eckhart quoted from the pulpit was last Sunday. The Dean had found a passage in Eckhart—actually a medieval commonplace, but beautifully expressed by the Dominican mystic—that sums up the whole truth about Christmas. It is not a truth likely to be popular with the Israeli Tourist Board or the hawkers of souvenirs in the plaza in front of the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem, but it is finally very comforting. That truth is that it doesn’t really matter very much when and where Jesus was actually born, whether in stable or cave, whether in “the bleak midwinter” of December or the dog days of August. The obviously mythic accounts of the gospels present a cosmic event, not the necessary data for a form required of the Bureau of Vital Statistics. No, what really matters is where Christ will next be born. Meister Eckhart knew that place must be within the hearts of those who would follow him.