25 DECEMBER 1964, Page 5

Ritual and Meaning

ox./ can get £500 an acre for a crop of I Christmas Trees (more, even, than for hops) if you know how to package them, and while the plastic variety have yet to establish them- selves. To this extent, anyway, the rituals of Christmas are still a growing part of our national behaviour. Present-giving and party- going habits are admittedly more widespread rituals than attendance at Christian altars (esti- mated at two million), but in a self-conscious, acquisitive and apparently rational society like ours, even these tokens of other-oriented con- duct are worth noting. People, obscurely, want to do something different at Christmas and are rather puzzled what to do. On the one hand, the aditertising industry and opinion-forming journa- lists direct them towards spending and 'enjoy- ment,' and, on the other, the churches proclaim with ever less simple conviction that Christ was born on Christmas morn. Neither activity seems quite sufficient. Why?

In one case, experience has lost contact with its basic motive, and, in the other, the language and images of religion have lost their experi- ential reference. The message of Christmas is still weird enough to startle: God the Son was born in a Middle Eastern village stable when Augustus ruled the Roman world. Product, ap- parently, of a teenage mother and either a rather dim carpenter or the Holy Ghost (or both), this God-man kept himself very much to himself until he was nearly thirty, when he collected a handful of friends, ministered in the villages around Galilee, got across authority and was judicially executed. He then appeared to come alive again, although this achievement did not seem to affect the political scene; and a few weeks later departed in a more normal manner, leaving his hopeless collection of friends (practically all of whom had let him down at the crucial moment) to found a religion and a society which in many ways is the most remarkable, and certainly the most widespread, that the world has known.

If that is one way of stating the 'good news,' there are many more inspiring in the liturgy, the hymns and prayers, the pious exhortations of Christmas. But though some aspect of them may still stir us—the image of the baby in the manger loses its power last—the traditional lan- guage of religion, the language of sermons and hymns, the complex cesuras of Cranmer, seem to say less and less to us. This is partly because of a lack of experience in ourselves of what these words could possibly mean, and partly, perhaps, a lack, of experience in living and suffering amongst those who now take it on themselves to be the proclaimers of the good news. When Britain was a Christian country (it was also a cruel, intolerant, acquisitive and fairly unimagina- tive one), the experience of religion was not only as real but as frequent as, fox' instance, the experience of romantic love. Between speakers and audience existed a whole web of shared thoughts, images, implications. The language of praise and thanksgiving was as meaningful as the language of arithmetic.

It is not so today, for while religious language has ceased to be a medium of communication for more than a tiny minority, the experiences we do share in common seem to have little con- tact with traditional religion.

In the last twenty years our common experi- ence of at least one very important aspect of living has become dramatically less—and that is death. But in another—sex—it has equally dramatically enlarged. The two processes are

doubtless connected, as the experiences them- selves are both also the most powerful agents towards God. In our society sex is becoming the main sacramental assertion of the existence of other people and other possibilities. We know a lot about sex; but without a balancing awareness of death it takes us only a little way. All religions have, as one of their basic motive forces a desire to ask what lies beyond death, and it is difficult to believe that this desire, however overlaid it may, become by technological preoccupations, does not exist today.

Christmas and Easter—the crowded stable and the empty cave—this is not just the heart of the Christian religion, it is a balance of forces which is necessary for the health and awareness of any society. Christmas is as good a time as there is to reflect on death, to make some fumbling attempts to prepare for it. With such a beginning, all experiences—whether giving or receiving, suffering or gratifying—become imperceptibly irradiated with a perception that the old cate- gories of religious language can become miraculously renewed.