Advent Day 21: Closet Pagan

A few years back I was sitting in the break room of NYU Langone Hospital with a colleague who was a rabbinical student (now, I’m happy to report, she is a full-fledged Rabbi – but at the time, she was still in school.)

She asked me, very plainly, what it was that I loved about Christianity, aside from the teachings of Jesus. It was such a perfectly genuine and open question, exactly the kind of place any real inter-religious dialogue should start. What did I love about the religious tradition that had developed around the teachings?

I hesitate for a moment and replied, “I love the pagan-ness of it.”

She looked surprised, as Jewish/Christian/Muslim traditions are not typically known to embrace the pagan strands that run through them. In fact, we’re more known for denying those strands and insisting that our religious traditions were a response to the excesses of “pagan” (I use the term very broadly) traditions.

”What do you mean?” she asked.

I could have answered with some theology around the incarnation of Christ – just as I could write about that now if I wasn’t in kind of a hurry and not quite awake enough to think it all through – but instead I just said, “well, look at Christmas. We still even have Christmas songs about the “Yuletide,” which is totally an ancient pagan holiday.”

I wasn’t connecting with any of the morning prayer readings today, and (full disclosure) I’m coming down with some kind of virus. So I let myself off the hook and decided to sit with one of the Canticles for today. Then I realized that today is that holy pagan day, the winter solstice. So that sealed the deal – and this is Canticle 12.

Glorify the Lord, you angels and all powers of the Lord, 
O heavens and all waters above the heavens.

Sun and moon and stars of the sky, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, every shower of rain and fall of dew, 
all winds and fire and heat.

Winter and Summer, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O chill and cold, 
drops of dew and flakes of snow.

Frost and cold, ice and sleet, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O nights and days, 
O shining light and enfolding dark.

Storm clouds and thunderbolts, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

II The Earth and its Creatures

Let the earth glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O mountains and hills,
and all that grows upon the earth, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O springs of water, seas, and streams, 
O whales and all that move in the waters.

All birds of the air, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O beasts of the wild, 
and all you flocks and herds.

O men and servants of the Lord, 

praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Glorify the Lord, O spirits and souls of the righteous, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

You that are holy and humble of heart, glorify the Lord, 
praise him and highly exalt him for ever.

Back when I was in college, and had decided I was finished with the church and Christianity, one of the moments that brought me back was hearing a homily at a church (where I had a gig!) about the doctrine of Creation and the idea that the cosmos is infused with the “self” of the Creator the same way a piece of art is infused with the “self” of the artist. That every tree, every flower, every spider and ant and cell and atom and great burning star and human baby and giraffe and stray cat and cuttlefish and snowfall and grain of sand were not “just” made of some impersonal “matter,” not just “stuff, but they mattered,  they disclosed something of the Sacred Nature of this world and this cosmos.

It changed the world for me, and it changed me, because it changed how I saw everything.

It changed how I saw myself. That’s taken longer to manifest, but this year – about 20+ years later – I’m starting to see how my soul can “magnify the Lord,” too.

Thanks be to God!

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