Here’s a thought that first occurred to me on the third weekend of January some years back, and that feels all the truer to me now:
I love that presidential inaugurations now take place the week of MLK Day. Not only does it make for a lovely extended holiday for some schools (most years), but we have created a secular ritual of loss and rebirth that satisfies my mythically-oriented but ultimately agnostic soul.
Think about it: every third Monday of January, we here in the US celebrate the life of man who called to the better angels of our nature, and who died in the struggle to get our nation to live out its creed—that all men are created equal. Every Martin Luther King Day, I listen to King’s speeches—the “I have a dream” behemoth, the “I have seen the Promised Land; I may not get there with you” Pisgah sight—and they fill me with both great hope and a great sense of loss. I cry. Every damned time. It’s pathetic. Only it’s not.
Then, every fourth year, on twentieth of January, we indulge in the audacity of our on-going revolution, an exercise that embraces the idea that not only are we all one nation together (whatever our differences), but that we can, will, and do work continuously to make ours a more perfect union.
But what this pair of secular holidays has created is a rite of renewal.
Joseph Campbell said that a ritual is a myth present in such a form that the celebrant lives the story. The celebrant is the hero on her/his own journey. And, as any good Hollywood producer could tell you these days, the apex of any good hero tale is a moment of death—either literal or figurative—followed by a moment of rebirth—physical or spiritual.
It works for Good Friday and Easter. It works for Samhain (that’s Halloween and All Hallows to the non-pagan among us). It works for Yom Kippur. It works for Ramadan.
And now it works for MLK Day—a day of hope lost—and Inauguration Day—a day of hope fulfilled.
Mind, there are inaugurals that fill me, personally, with more hope than others…. But on this third Tuesday of January, I will indeed be filled with hope: hope, not for perfection but for perfectibility; hope in the ability of our nation and our world to learn from our mistakes and turn from our excesses.
So. Happy Martin Luther King Day. Happy Inauguration Day. Enjoy the Renewal.
[Updated 2020; these thoughts and feelings strike me as, if anything, more pertinent today than ever. As fractured and challenged as our society may be, let us take a deep breath and consider the passing of the old and the coming of the new..]