In my last essay, The Blessings of Secularism, I received a blessing of some excellent secular criticism, indeed, a veritable back-hand. I was preaching the fact that Catholicism welcomes the convert into a world of primary meaning by attaching things with their meaning, giving New Life to Easter Eggs, ‘God be by you’ to ‘goodbye,’ ‘Salvation’ to ‘salut,’ and a Holy Day to our holidays. I imagined, briefly, a few new and improved “Keep Christ in Christmas” campaigns, slogans crotchety Christians concerned with the swelling of secularism could hurl throughout the year: “A Blessing for Every Sneeze,” “Keep the Cross in Crossing Your Fingers,” and “Keep the Monk in Getting Drunk.” But then, like the guy who lights a cigarette in a gasoline fight, came this:
The Church has done this itself. In the fourth century it appropriated the pagan winter solstice worship of the sun god (Mithras) for the sake of convenience in setting the birth of Jesus at December 25. A follower of Mithras, at the time, would make the same argument you’re making now.
Now I absolutely understand that The Church has appropriated pagan holidays, rituals, and objects — and I mean pagan in the broad, offensive sense of everyone-with-the-wherewithal-not-to-be-a-Christian — but this is a confusion of what I mean by primary meaning. I am not speaking chronologically, as if I delight in AC/BC over CE/BCE because the one came first. I delight in the coincidence of meaning and word, that BC means ‘Before Christ’ for the reason that it really does refer to a time before Christ — monkish miscalculations aside. I am amused by the secular renaming, not because it is rude, but because not rude enough. It gave a post-Christian name without changing the Christian reason for the word.
Indeed, if secularism renamed as the Church ‘renames,’ staking a cross through this or that tradition and giving it, not just a new name, but a new meaning, essence, and raison d’etre, than I could respect the Winter Solstice as something positive, over and against Christianity, brave and, in the final account, human.
A baptism gives a name, but the name is not the point. The name is the consequence, symbol and icon of something far greater — a change in the very being of the person baptized, who becomes, through baptism, a new creation, a child of God, and a member of the Church. A naming ceremony is a gentle thing, but a baptism is a violence and a death. In the former a person is indicated as this person or that, taking on a new sign which will refer to him, and in the latter the person becomes this instead of that. The old is dead, the new has risen, and the name refers to this ontological change. In baptism, the person is christened, that is, made Christian. In a renaming, the person is made into nothing new — he is simply given a new referent.
The Church does not rename pagan traditions as the secularist renames Christian holidays, seasons, symbols and so forth. The Church baptizes the world. The Church impudently gives pagan traditions new meanings, of which a new name is an icon and consequence. The Winter Solstice is not renamed ‘Christmas’ in the manner in which secularists timidly rename Christmas ‘Winter Solstice.’ No, the Winter Solstice becomes Christmas — the old gods are dead and Christianity has killed them.
Of course, I do not expect this to be believed. I believe it on the assumption, presupposition and fantastic prejudice that Christianity is true, that its baptisms have the power to change raison d’etre of things, that all of humanity is only itself insofar as it is Christian — actually, I believe all manner of absurdities. But even if we drop the Christian prejudice, it still remains true that, by virtue of the fact that Christians really do believe they are changing the meanings of things, Christianity is doing something fundamentally different than the nonsensical renaming of Christian meaning by a post-Christian intelligentsia.
Post-christian renaming hasn’t the substance to offend. It is a pious timidity before the specter of Christianity. It does not assert, as the Church asserted of Pagan traditions, that the old gods are dead, or that they were shadows and preparations of the one true God who has come into the world. They do not recreate, arguing that this tree, this season, this symbol, that this all has a new objective meaning as, say, an Infinite Universe Tree, the season of Self-Determined Meaning, the Feast of the Proclamation of the Dogma of Religious Pluralism, boldly declaring that the Crucifix was always awaiting its fulfillment as the symbol of the Primacy of the Positive Sciences Over All Forms of Knowledge. The post-Christian cannot christen — he has not the potency. Secularism renames by watering down the strong, making broth out of the meat of Christianity. The Christian is creative. He, more than the hippest of ‘existentialists,’ creates meaning in the Cosmos. The secularist only reduces facts to by-products that only exist because of the facts. He picks some effect of the Christian meaning, and claims that this is all the Christian meaning really means — Christmas only a season of generosity, Easter only a time of fertility, and so on.
The problem with renaming instead of baptism is watering down something to its effects lessens even the effects. Without the Christ-child, the spirit of generosity or family — or whatever is supposed to be the real, humanistic meaning of Christmas — far from glowing in hearts, is extinguished by commercial advertising. Renaming Christmas as “a time for togetherness,” a togetherness which only existed as an effect of a belief in that universal fraternity inaugurated by God’s becoming man, this destroys the cause and expects the effect — but is it really a surprise that, without its root, togetherness devolves into the grotesque pageantry of family feuding that is the parody of the Holy Day? This helps us to finally understand the difference between a baptism and a renaming. The post-Christian renaming reduces to an acceptable effect without daring to alter the cause. The baptism invokes and declares a new cause — not Spring, but Christ, not the gods, but God, not the garden’s growth, but the Gardener. A cause alone can remain and bear the fruit of effects. An effect divorced from its cause — a holiday apart from a Holy Day, a sign of the cross apart from the Cross — these crumble as a tree without roots. I am Catholic because I want to live in a universe of primary meaning, of a real relation of effect to cause, nunc et in hora mortis, amen.