catapult magazine

catapult magazine

Vol 10, Num 23 :: 2011.12.23 — 2012.01.05


It was a horse

In one of pop culture’s iconic odes to tradition, Fiddler on the Roof opens with a song that devolves into an argument about whether someone actually delivered a horse or a mule.  The charm of the community is broken as the factions yell back and forth at one another—a scene that might not be unfamiliar to some of us around the holidays.  And I’m not just referring to knock-down, drag-out fighting either.  Whether you’re family is boisterous or reserved, it’s more about seeing things from different perspectives: the fruitcake that looks like a holiday treat to one person looks like a stomachache to another.  Fruitcake!  Stomachache!  Tradition!

This Advent season, I’ve been thinking about the complicated ways traditions function in our lives.  Ideally, they focus deep, collective values through communal celebrations, and yet, so many of us feel stuck observing traditions that make us feel alienated or guilty.  I recently saw Melancholia (reviewed in this issue by Eric Kuiper and Greg Veltman), the newest film by director Lars von Trier, which illustrates this situation well.  The first half agonizingly details the all-night wedding party of a chronically depressed bride.  She’s in her highest spirits of the entire film as the half opens on the limousine driver, futilely attempting to navigate the winding driveway up to the house where the wedding guests are waiting for the late couple.  Why are they in such a predicament?  Because of course a bride and groom are supposed to arrive at their reception in a limo.  Of course there’s supposed to be a silly game in which guests are asked to guess the number of beans in a jar.  Of course the groom is supposed to give a toast, even if the highest compliment he can think of to pay to his new wife is that she’s “gorgeous.”  Throughout the ordeal, the bride is coddled and forced through a gauntlet of expectations, raising acute questions about whom the celebration is for after all and what stake each character has in the success of the event.

In stark contrast is another work of art I encountered recently, a painting called Nativity at Night by the fifteenth century Dutch artist Geertgen tot Sint Jans (above)The only sources of light in the familiar tableau are divine—the Christ child glows with a radiance that illuminates the whole barn, while the Lord’s angel messenger burns in the distant sky above the shepherds.  One of the things I love about the scene is the array of emotions, from the reverence and glee of the angels to the recognition and amusement of the animals to Mary’s calm concern and Joseph’s surprise.  Whereas the bride at the center of Melancholia aims to blow the whole place apart, destroying everything in her path, the infant bridegroom in Nativity at Night is drawing all things into his naked, vulnerable self.  In this space of stunning incarnation, the child seems to invite all sorts of genuine emotions, and what ultimately matters is not the emotion itself, but what is at the center: pure, earth-shaking love.

As we head into a week or more of various traditions, we might take some comfort in this: a range of emotions is appropriate.  We might grieve for someone who’s missing from the table this year or lament the hold of consumerism over our family’s observance, even while we delight in a true expression of generosity or the nostalgia of a meaningful dish.  And maybe we’ll experience conflicting emotions at the same time about the very same thing: gratitude and lament over a gift choice or pain and happiness at seeing a child outgrow a ritual.  There’s not one perfect way to feel; rather, when we stop obsessing about ourselves, there’s an incarnate God, both helpless and sovereign, with arms wide open to embrace us in both suffering and unconditional love.

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