The summer after my 8th grade year, my class took a week-long trip to Washington, D.C. We did fundraisers all through the previous year to gather up the money to go, and as a little history buff, someone who had been able to name all the presidents since age 6, I was just a wee bit excited. The Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial, copies of the Constitution and Declaration of Independence--I was in Nerd-vana!
We moved at a break-neck pace, stopping barely long enough at any place to snap a few pictures and hear a few paragraphs from a tour guide. But one of the sights that sticks most clearly in my mind, almost 20 years later, is the Changing of the Guard at the Tomb of the Unknowns. If you've never seen it, here's a clip.
This is quite simply beautiful. The precision of their movements is almost mechanical. Every step and gesture is crisp with solemnity and respect. And this is a perfect example of an oft-forgotten truth: solemn does not mean somber, even at a tomb. C.S. Lewis says it well in his Preface to Paradise Lost regarding the Old English word solempne:
Like solemn it implies the opposite of what is familiar, free and easy, or ordinary. But unlike solemn it does not suggest gloom, oppression, or austerity. The ball in the first act of Romeo and Juliet was a ‘solemnity’. The feast at the beginning of Gawain and the Green Knight is very much a solemnity. A great mass by Mozart or Beethoven is as much a solemnity in its hilarious gloria as in its poignant crucifixus est. Feasts are, in this sense, more solemn than fasts. Easter is solempne, Good Friday is not. The Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for a pomp–and the very fact that pompous is now used only in a bad sense measures the degree to which we have lost the old idea of a 'solemnity’. To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people to enjoy them; in an age when every one puts on his oldest clothes to be happy in, you must re-awake the simpler state of mind in which people put on gold and scarlet to be happy in. Above all, you must be rid of the hideous idea, fruit of a widespread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connextion with vanity or self-conceit. A celebrant approaching the altar, a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade, a major-domo preceding the boar’s head at a Christmas feast–all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient; they are obeying the hoc age which presides over every solemnity. The modern habit of doing ceremonial things unceremoniously is no proof of humility; rather it proves the offender’s inability to forget himself in the rite, and his readiness to spoil for every one else the proper pleasure of ritual… . You are to expect pomp. You are to 'assist’, as the French say, at a great festal action.When I read this, I immediately think of the Mass (as Lewis does, when he mentions the celebrant approaching the altar). The Sacred Liturgy is intended to have just this kind of solemnity: an air of being set apart (which is the root meaning of holy). It is meant to take us outside of ourselves and into the presence of God and the communion of saints. When I run across people who complain that the Mass is "stiff" or even call it "empty ritual," I think of this passage from Lewis, and I wonder that these very same people would most likely witness the Changing of the Guard and think it beautiful for the very reasons they think the Mass not beautiful! Why is that? Why the double standard? An interesting question to consider. Thoughts?