The Faint and the Festival

“Where shall we go, where shall we tread the dance, tossing our white-haired heads in the dances of the god?

…I could dance night and day, untiringly, beating the earth with my thyrsus! And how sweet it is to forget my old age.”

-Euripides, The Bacchae

Happy New Year, friends! We never cease to be surprised when we find another year behind us and a new one on the horizon. Such beginnings are tied up in the name Sunrise. We have arrived at another beginning– the dawn of another year. Here’s to living this new year by the light of Christ.

I hope you all had a joyous and festal holiday season. It is always a blessed and beautiful time of the year, even when it is pierced by tragedy and sorrow. In fact, it is precisely the darkness which so easily surrounds this time of celebration that makes the light of Christmas shine so brightly. (You can read more of my thoughts on that in this post.)

This holiday season has been one of mixed emotions for me. It hasn’t been entirely easy, facing family sorrows and trying goodbyes. But it has nonetheless been a time of rest in the midst of tiring times. In fact, that’s what I want to write about today: the importance of the festival for we who are faint. When we feel drained, celebration can bring renewed vitality, and I believe we ought to be very thankful for the gift of dance and song when our hearts and hands grow weary.

The quotation at the beginning of this post comes from the ancient Greek dramatist Euripides, in his famed telling of the first frenzied cult of the god Dionysus. The work is a tragedy, and tells a dark story. But the theme at the core of this sorrowful tale is one of festal celebration and worshipful joy. For this god, dance and song are not only gifts, but virtues; they are to be both enjoyed, and diligently partaken of.

20th-century Christian writer G.K. Chesterton compares the frenzy of Euripides’ Bacchants with the Christian theology of joy in his own work Heretics.

“Dionysus and his church was grounded on a serious joie-de-vivre like that of Walt Whitman. Dionysus made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament. Jesus Christ also made wine, not a medicine, but a sacrament.”

-G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

The comparison drawn between the dangerous hedonism of Dionysus’ cultists and the sacrament of the Lord’s Supper may seem inappropriate or irreverent, but Chesterton’s intent is not to validate the frenzy of the occult. Instead, he wishes to illustrate a powerful truth which has its home in Christianity, but is echoed in the pagan religion of the Greeks. That truth is this: jollity and merry-making are essential and holy elements of the God-fearing life. Simply put, the people of God ought to be the world’s foremost virtuosos in the grand art of celebration.

As we emerge from a season of festivities and return to our usual, sensible realities, it is vital that we continue to carry the poetry of Christmas into the office or the classroom. The purpose of such joyous celebration is not to provide us with our fix of jubilance and then send us back into the world with heavy hearts. On the contrary, the festival of Christmas is meant to be brought back with us; it is intended to inject an enduring shot of gaiety for us to carry into the world beyond. The Christmas season and the time of new beginnings celebrated with such vigor on New Year’s Day is a reminder that the Christian faith is a bright and beautiful thing.

When we are terribly honest with ourselves, we must acknowledge that most of us find our daily existence to be tinted with shades of monotony and lacking some of the sparkle of the holidays and the grand adventures we dream of. Although it seems counterintuitive, it is the daring and the difficult which rejuvenates us; we find our energy restored when we leap and dance and climb and run. It is in the sitting and the waiting that we grow tired. We find ourselves weary from inaction, and only striving and action can wake us up. The festival is the cure to the faintness we feel when we tarry too long from the dance.

“In the round of our rational and mournful year one festival remains out of all those ancient gaieties that once covered the whole earth. Christmas remains to remind us of those ages, whether Pagan or Christian, when the many acted poetry instead of the few writing it.”

-G.K. Chesterton, Heretics

As we emerge from this exuberant season of the year and step into our New Year’s Resolutions and the everyday obstacles that seek to stop them, let us remember Christmas. Remember that the greatest curse the White Witch could place upon Narnia was an eternal winter with no Christmas. That is truly a terrible, empty world, for it is Christmas which makes the winter beautiful. When we are tired, it is not inaction that we need, but truly vivacious action. When our souls grow tired, let us rest in Christ– and when we have rested, let us return swiftly to the dance and the festival, letting the poetry of life in Christ leap from our lips and lighten our limbs.

Happy New Year! Go, strive and grow and sing. Do the work of your master, dance the dance of your God, and fight the good fight of faith.

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