Sunday, 25 December 2011

Sacred Time

Up to a certain specific instant you are feeling ordinary and sad; for it is only Wednesday. At the next moment your heart leaps up and your soul and body dance together like lovers; for in one burst and blaze it has become Thursday. I am assuming (of course) that you are a worshipper of Thor, and that you celebrate his day once a week, possibly with human sacrifice. (G.K. Chesterton)

Merry Christmas.
Or Happy Hanukah.
Or Yuletide Greetings.
Or Blessed Winter Solstice.

However this time of year is celebrated, it is celebrated as a special time, whether it is the birth of Christ, the Jewish festival of lights, or the Pagan celebration at the shortest day of the year, the turning point when days lengthen.

Probably the earliest marking of time as special is the astrological one, the solstice. The modern distinction between astrology and astronomy simply didn't apply in the ancient world. If a time was significant, it was also sacred, and would be marked out in such a ritual manner as to make it special.

The marking of points of time as sacred is a very ancient one, and it is something that is quite distinct to human beings. While geese and other creatures might migrate at particular times of the year, they simply go; there is no rite of preparation before the long and perhaps dangerous journey. Only human beings mark out time as special.

We do it with birthdays as well, of course, and Christmas itself is the celebration of a birthday of a special kind. Again that is something human beings do - cats and dogs don't celebrate the day they are born.

With all this goes an awareness of time, and the marking out of periods of time, and celebrating some times as special. The rationalists of the French revolution would have just have segments of time like any other, and the capitalist wanting to have Sunday as a shopping day like any other are both running counter to this need of human beings to mark out time as special.

It is noteworthy that when the Jacobins of the French Revolution promoted their "cult of reason", some of the strongest rebellion came from Brittany, where the ancient Celtic culture had seeped into the ballads and poems (later collected by Théodore La Villemarqué ), and the rhythm of time as special was in direct contradiction to the atheism of the revolutionaries. In the end, the rationalist programme broke down; unlike other creatures, we need to mark time as special, and locate significance and meaning in our lives.

Martin Marty notes that:

While different religious communities view and practice observance of sacred time differently, all share in this concept and find in sacred time a connection to the eternal.  Sacred time recalls significant moments of the past, and looks to the future with religious hope; it collects into the present moment both past and future in a celebration of the eternal.

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