Since first reading J.R. Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings, I’ve been captivated by the scene in which Galadriel gives Frodo the light from Eärendil, the Morning and Evening Star of the elven world: “In this phial, is caught the light of Eärendil’s star, set amid the waters of my fountain. It will shine still brighter when night is about you. May it be a light to you in dark places, when all other lights go out.”
It is not until the end of The Two Towers when Frodo and Sam are trapped in the lair of Shelob that the gift’s purpose becomes clear: “‘The star-glass?’ murmured Frodo, as one answering out of sleep, hardly comprehending. ‘Why yes! Why had I forgotten it? A light when all other lights go out! And now indeed light alone can help us.’ “
The story is full of Advent character – A premonition that Frodo’s world will get darker, go dark, and death will be at hand. In this moment earthly sources of light will be spent and it will be a gifted-light that alone can help. I can’t help but think how dark our geo-political world currently is. A Shelob’s lair of webs and poison. Various elements do seem anti-Christ. The light is cursed, and what is dark is called light; The UK has a Prime Minster who has called people of color “pickaninnies”, Muslim women who wear the hijab “post boxes”, and demonstrably lies daily. The opposition is not innocent. Its rightful support of Palestinians has at times appeared anti-Semitic. On the part of the USA one need not repeat the vile language POTUS has used regarding women, the mocking of a disabled reporter, the documented ceaseless lying. In Italy, the Northern League political party blames recent immigrants for Italy’s systemic and historical economic difficulties and calls those coming to its shores “socially dangerous”. This is to say nothing of human degradation elsewhere – in North Korea, Syria, Yemen, Hong Kong, Palestine, Mexico, Bolivia, South Sudan and the rest. Scripture calls for our attention: “Out of the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks” (Mt 12:34).
What is frightening is not only the language employed, but its normalisation, the obvious desire to eradicate social consciousness, substituted with infrastructures of hate, all the while the masses watch on, too exhausted and too distracted to say no. It’s easy to understand why Thomas Merton in his still eerily salient Raids on the Unspeakable (1966) said that the greatest spiritual illness of modernity is the dehumanization of the world – the effacement of the imago dei in each person. Delegitimize human being enough, and you can eventually do anything to anyone. Darkness indeed.
But in the darkness comes the gift of light. The ordination service for presbyters in the Church of England’s Common Worship says priests (and here I would include all Christians) are to watch for signs of the Kingdom, God’s new creation. They are to be sentinels of the coming light. Within the political darkness that obscures many places on earth friends tell me that in Italy perhaps a new light is gathering.
Last month a group of students in Bologna assembled a flashmob against the presence of Matteo Salvini, head of the far-right and basically neo-fascist Northern League party. It was a gathering to say no to anti-immigrant policies, but especially to Salvini’s preferred language and tactics of dehumanisation. And Italians are buying in. The Sardines, as they are now known, are packing the piazzas of Italy confronting the “violence, populism and the tones of far-right politics”. The movement has become trans-generational.
Faith and politics mix. Liturgy and politics mix. I’ve been convinced of this since reading many years ago The Unread Vision (1998) and Earth and Altar (1986). Having been to a Sardine gathering I can only say the events are a type of liturgy on the public square. This fact was brought home during a recent interview with Mattia Santori, one of the movement’s founders, on a popular evening politics program Otto e Mezzo. When a journalist pushed the founder to classify the political nature of the ‘protests’ Mattia corrected him. He called them acts of integration, of humanisation. They are not political gatherings with messaging, as such. Indeed they are not primary against, but for. They are symbols of solidarity, that are meant to reanimate social consciousness through music, dancing, being together. Both the language of the Sardines in the media and during gatherings is decisively different. The language remains calm, articulate, reasoned, non-confrontational, empowering. It is a transparent language that lets truth or lie expose itself before the onlooker. In this way the gatherings are demonstrative of the change they desire, not a stage of argumentative discourses and political programmes.
When pressed for a political message, or what party the movement would form, or join, Mattia highlighted the fact that their goal was to sensitise the public and bring to the fore critique of political behaviours wherever necessary. It is not their “work” to be politicians, Mattia insisted. It is apparent that the packed piazzas are of the moral order, not the political. The journalist had no language to engage the symbolic reality Mattia was pointing to and working with. A lesson on liturgy had just taken place. In a time in which churches, are caught up in ‘messaging’ and ‘functionalizing’ liturgies, I found Mattia’s liturgical instincts (even if he doesn’t know they are) and use of embodied symbolism refreshing. As well as his politics. I’ll be back in the piazza January 6 for another ‘liturgy’. May the Sardines be a light where other lights have gone out.