Let us make it clear: this is not about the Christmas spirit, or about the solstice, or about a Fox News personality's paranoid frisson. This is, first and foremost, about time. “Time and tide,” we say, when the words are synonyms in Old English. When it's “Eastertide” or “Christmastide,” the “tide” means “season” and “time.” This, then, is about Advent tide, and why that isn't Christmas.
I will acknowledge right off that I am peculiar. I am an anti-rationalist (which has nothing to do with irrationality, by the way) and a Christian humanist, and so I'm attracted to mysticism. I follow a long parade of better minds in this regard. From Kierkegaard to Wittgenstein, philosophers who have dealt with the insane limitations of enquiry have come to the conclusion that IF there is a Something Grander, reason won't go there.
However, liking mysticism is rather like being an inhabitant of Greenland. Someone lives there, you know, but they'd have a devil of a time getting you to visit.
Like Anglo-Saxon, Greek had more than one word for time. “Chronos” is the word used for time in general, and it's the customary word. However, the New Testament famously (ok, famously in the circles of people who read Greek) uses the other word, “kairos.” Even if you reject the tradition of Christian writing on the New Testament, the word “kairos” carried with it a sense of “right time” or “particular moment.” Therefore, a translator might say, “And at one particular time she was to be delivered,” but that can also mean, “She was due” or “When it was correct” (Luke 2:6).
W. H. Auden and Christopher Isherwood (or vice versa) have an essay in The Dyer's Hand about /kairos/, and I read it when I was young and impressionable. I didn't like it. I hated it. Consequently, it has informed my outlook ever since. Auden ties the breakthrough between supernatural reality and quotidian reality to separate cycles of time, whereby our natural, plodding time will assemble itself through myriad acts of free will and necessity into these few shocks of transcendent history, when God's history and our history converge in the “fullness of time.” (It turns out that I am a liar or a doddering fool, as I have searched electronic versions of The Dyer's Hand and found nothing, but I have found “For the Time Being” by the author. I have also discovered that Kierkegaard had quite a bit to say about “fullness of time.”)
Precision is impossible with these concepts because of how fluid they were. W. B. Yeats wanted to find history circling itself in “gyres,” where there would be moments of contact between the coils of the unwound spring. These contact points would be transcendent, as a single grand narrative played out over and over again. The French Symbolists, especially as they suffered revival by T. S. Eliot, saw a second world's signification lying beneath the scattered and broken objects of the war-ravaged landscape. While they silently held onto a priesthood of art by having the Poet be the one who could see the hidden, they also overtly secularized transcendence. It was supernatural, anti-rational, profound in the literal sense, and timeless.
By The Four Quartets, Eliot's mysticism was more classically Christian. He had, instead of a counter-narrative in life, the counter-narrative of humanity and, even below that, a rhyming, pulsing sense of spirit in time. I think Eliot would not have liked Kierkegaard, or anything that denied essence, but the two visions fit well.
The reason I am rambling through all of this is to show that this feeling, “like a splinter in your mind,” is hoary and persistent. Some of our more sensitive and thoughtful people have also found in it not a grand illusion, but a grand truth. For myself, I have to go back to the real before I can find anything super-real.
Metaphors of Life
How do we speak of life and time? We speak of the “circle of life” and the “river of time.” Sometimes we use a metaphor of a train, a journey, or growth for life, and the interconnected events of nature are sometimes phrased as a balance. The Magna Mater is kind of rare these days, but sometimes Mother Nature shows up, if only in advertisements for personal hygiene products.
The circle of life is both value neutral and nullified. It is purposeless, perpetual, and indifferent. We can only break it by caring or evading it. Further, it is a metaphor of biology and science, as it focuses upon eating and reproducing as the meaning of living. Since every time we speak the language, our language speaks us, this metaphor betrays our desires or infects them.
The “river” of time has been around for thousands of years. While Heraklitus might himself have meant to propose a stoical and mystical end, the metaphor is quietistic. It is fatal, as it suggests the particulate nature of the speaker, the hopelessness of understanding, much less commenting upon, the current, and the inevitability of events.
I was out in the managed wilderness yesterday, and I closed my eyes and listened. To listen, there must be sound instead of noise, and being far from a highway allowed me to hear things as they were without our intentionality splattered across them.
Digression for pastoralism
I apologize for being a self-indulgent jerk (it's ok: I forgive me), but this is what occurred to me while I was out there.
Most of all, the birds and the wind sound. The wind does not sigh, at least not here, not often. It swells a chorale, the chords shifting gracefully like curtains sweeping across the land, and the tree limbs and leaves, those freed corpses rolling about as tides of memnto mori until they bed in graves about the path, sing and shake rhythm and counter melody beside. And when the wind falls silent, it is only thinking of the next long syllable to play on the world. The lake's surface knows in its body what we cannot hear in our ears: there is always a breeze, for what else is the current?
The birds play tree specific notes. Sp! Sp! Is all the straw-blended sparrows say, until one says, Food. As each peeps and sings, the songs clash, but that mixture and burble is the hillside in winter. Besides, the loudest call, and most common, comes from the one who respects no season: the red tail hawk who is always complaining to no one in particular about the one that got away. When it is silent, it is only because it has no complaint.
The respiration of nature
Nature's order is each of the things we have said of it, but it is something more basic, too, something we carry in ourselves. It is wax and wane, ebb and surge. The natural world respirates, and respiration carries within it the cycle and the motion, for we never have the same breath twice.
When we humans set out order, we plan, and we will. We intend, and we let either a goal or a past event (history) set forth our intention, but the natural world accommodates by allowing any individual item to be whatever it is and still set the growth/release model.
The Anglo-Saxon tide is a period of time, a season, and an area of time when things are right. Like /kairos/, it is fullness, fitness, appropriateness. It can also be “area of time surrounding on a calendar,” but that is only true in a very limited sense. This is Christmas tide.
The Advent, for Christians, is not a time for simple meanings. The signal events in the Christian story are the ones most difficult, most ambivalent, calling for joy and grief simultaneously, for awareness of birth and death. I heard a young man pray in thanks for Christmas, because “Fathagod” it was “the time when you took all that sin on yourself.” For that young man and his dualist theology, he could only think of Advent as the birth of the crucifixion. The life of Jesus was hardly there at all.
The birth's meaning is far greater than his understanding, I think. As Auden and the others were saying, this is a moment, for Christians, when the three times intersect, when the natural order and the narrative order and the divine shatter. The moment of incarnation is parallel, proleptic, and also unique. Mary's response to Gabriel in the annunciation mirrors Jesus in the garden of Gethsemane, and the taking up of her flesh mirrors the words of institution at the last supper. (In other words, the flesh is important, in all its suffering.) At the same time, it is when the first sin, when Eve and Adam wanted to know what evil was and got their wish, is given the complex answer in the new humanity. All of that is involved, and so every sign repeats, leaps forward, calls to something from before, and evokes in such a way that any effort at pinning it down to “Happy baby” or “Whew, the cross is coming” or “He will ascend” is missing everything for trying at something.
No one knows when Jesus was born, not even the year. The traditional mass and feast for Jesus was set for December 25th in the west. For many Sundays prior, traditional lectionaries have readings to prepare for the feast, as this is not a question of Christmas, but of the Advent, nor of a day nor time, but of a tide.