A Long-expected Party & The Shadow of the Past
by Kevin Sullivan
The party has been long expected. All of the Shire’s stores have been cleared out, supplies of fine food and drink and pipe weed have been brought in from distant lands. The ho-drum of daily life has been defeated by the pure anticipation of the infamous Bilbo Baggins’ eleventy-first birthday. And what a festival it is, filled with laughter, music, magic, delicious treats and soothing smokes.
Yet, to the consternation of many of the Shire folk, the long-expected party proves not to be an endless celebration. It actuality it is the beginning of a strange and mysterious journey and series of events for Middle-earth. The great party, with Bilbo’s use of the ring of power to disappear, is part of the world in motion. Rumors abound not just of the strangeness of his disappearance, but about Elves moving west, Dwarves seeking refuge, the Dark Tower being rebuilt.
In many ways, this party for Bilbo’s birthday may seem more suited to remind us of Advent and the Feast of the Nativity than of the Lenten season. The birthday, the gifts and travelers from afar, the fireworks as the guiding star. We cannot forget though that the Nativity, and the Christmas season, point to what comes next. The Incarnation is the incredible beginning, but in no way the end. We cannot live in eternal festival on earth – our festivals point to what we might attain eternally, and are encouraging nourishment along the way.
Ah, the way. This liturgical year, our own celebration is also abruptly cut short with only a few meager weeks between the feasting of the Christmas Season to the fasting initiated with dust on our foreheads. During that liturgical period, we are reminded of another similar feast in Scripture:
“When the steward tasted the water that had become wine, and did not know where it came from (though the servants who had drawn the water knew), the steward called the bridegroom and said to him, ‘Everyone serves the good wine first, and then the inferior wine after the guests have become drunk. But you have kept the good wine until now.’ Jesus did this, the first of his signs, in Cana of Galilee, and revealed his glory; and his disciples believed in him.” (John 2:9-11)
In the Wedding Feast at Cana, Jesus participates in our festivity, bringing the incarnate Word into all of the joys and the sufferings (like running out of wine) of human life. And at this great Scriptural feast, he too has a surprise for everyone. His miraculous act – which cooperates with nature to give us a glimpse of what is to come when the world is fulfilled – begins His mission and sets Him and his disciples on the way. The wedding feast, even with the renewed stone jars of fine wine, does not last forever. It is time that we too reflect on and give gratitude for the season of joy and hope that we have just celebrated. What we should realize is that it is our nourishment for the journey with Christ. A journey that will find us among strange lands, in the company of new friends, in the darkness of Mordor, and at its end, in eternal rest.
In his great work “In Tune with the World: A Theory of Festivity,” Josef Pieper helps us to find hope when our human festivals and merriment must come to an end:
“The reason for joy, although it may be encountered in a thousand concrete forms, is always the same: possessing or receiving what one loves, whether actually in the present, hoped for in the future, or remembered in the past….True as it is that a real festival cannot be conceived without joy, it is no less true that first there must be substantial reason for joy.”
We know the reason for that joy, the Alpha and the Omega. The road there and the Lenten season are less clear and full of challenges. Perhaps we should look to the unlikeliest of creatures, our Hobbit-friend Bilbo Baggins, for encouragement:
The Road goes ever on and on
Down from the door where it began.
Now far ahead the Road has gone,
And I must follow, if I can,
Pursuing it with eager feet,
Until it joins some larger way
Where many paths and errands meet.
And whither then? I cannot say.
2015’s Reflection: “On Sin and Festivity”