A Midsummer Night’s Light – Pastor’s Reflection
I write these lines last Monday by your reckoning. Midsummer’s golden afternoon light fills my room and it brings with it remarkably cool and clear air. The light and the air beckon me. Twin sirens, they whisper, “Come away! Waste not these precious brilliant hours! Ponder the 5 pm darknesses ahead and escape into the beauty of the peak of the year.” But I resist! The keyboard holds me bound, for I must answer to Rachel Miller for another late bulletin letter.
Instinctively, people gravitate to the summer solstice for celebration, recognizing that they stand at nature’s most luxuriant moment. From of old Midsummer’s Eve and Night offered fire-lit abandon and outdoor revels. Christianity baptized all of this. The Midsummer of the Church falls not on the solstice, but just after it, from the evening of June 23 to that of June 24, the Nativity of St. John the Baptist. A clever trick this is! The bacchanalia that had honored the sun’s triumph now honors its retreat. The Saint of the day would have recognized his imprint on this strategy for he had said of Christ, “he must increase, I must decrease.” (John 3:30). Christ’s Nativity comes just after the other solstice, when in the December shadows the sun begins to advance.
In our neighborhood men and women have lit Midsummer’s ancient fires to proclaim their emergence from lockdown, and they stand in the long twilight with a margarita in a closed cup at 2nd and somewhere, and from across six feet of sidewalk they want to know how you have been. As I write, another midsummer fire has been lit. The 7 pm clap has reached my ears, a summer exuberance brought to bear against tragedy early on in the gray days of pandemic peak.
How many ways to light a bonfire! Protest’s torchlight makes a true midsummer blaze, summoning us to behold the prejudices that try to hide in the night and fail. In the dancing light of these flames we even see that demon lurking deepest in our primeval forest. We do not like to see the specter of violence illuminated, preferring to visit this ghoul under cover of dark. He lures us away from the holy fire, promising us a solution and leaving us a season of mayhem ending in shame, and so into the firelight come winter demons of hate and resentment, suspicion and derision. We avert our gaze in hope of cutting ties, for these spirits disturb us doubly. They are the parents of violence and the children of violence. And the fire reveals the wretched family’s lair not in nature’s woods, but in the ancient thickets of our own hearts.
Our hearts I say! I see the demons in you and I want to cast you into the fire to exorcise them, but as to getting them out of me, I have no idea. So I sit in Midsummer but far from Midsummer, ashamed of what I did, what I said, what I thought, and what I felt. I too am mother and father to violence and violence is my offspring. I try to blame the demons in you for the demons in me, but I do not really believe my story.
Friends at Wikipedia tell me that on Midsummer’s Eve the medievals lit three kinds of fire: a fire of bones (the bonfire), a fire of wood (the watching fire), and a fire of both (St. John’s fire). Well, the revelers on the avenues, the clappers on the balconies, and the marchers in the squares light fires that seem to differ, yet each throws the heat of desire for freedom; from rules that constrain, from a virus that haunts, from violence that hangs like a sword of Damocles over daily life, and from thoughts that cannot be purged. In this light we recognize the preaching of the Baptist, calling us to “clap” for the tired and the impoverished, the sick and the dying. With the protesters he rouses us to indignation at injustice. In the end, though, he does not get us unstuck from the mental loop of unwelcome feelings, but he promises the one who will.
The one promise does not come with a fire but with the single flame of his Easter candle, a beam that pierces the darkness outside and inside. The light of Christ illumines a life free from fearsome and fearful demons, and lazar like it can clear the path to that un-haunted serenity.
The fire of the Baptist’s preaching shows us how the sabbath of the heart is menaced by our feelings about people with dark skin, or men and women in blue uniforms, or people decked in rainbow raiment: such goblins cannot come into the eternal presence of the loving Creator. If we fail to behold his handiwork, how will we behold Him? So many faithful people recognize this terrible cul-de-sac for what it is! They confess a prejudice and cannot perceive a way beyond it. But Christ the Truth and the Life, is also the Way.
His sacramental potency and sanctifying grace make possible something that casts out the demon of prejudice, and that is the contemplation of neighbor. If I but cooperate with his means he will enable me to see the humanity in the one who disturbs me. It all starts with the one person I cannot reduce to type: the one whose complexity breaks through my categories. From beholding the complexity of one, I grow to amazement at the complexity of the group, and then to delight at the mosaic of groups, just as Pentecost’s tongues of flame intended for me.
The Holy Spirit, the Illuminator promised and delivered by Christ, shows me this paradox: contemplating human complexity is my preparation for delighting in God’s simplicity. As I take up this task with more and more relish I find that the days stay longer for longer and Midsummer is not a fling, but my way of life.
Now it’s a delicious Midsummer morning and in the broad daylight of 6 am it’s time for me to open St. Catherine’s Church, so the early crowd can start practicing for heaven.
Published in our bulletin June 21, 2020