My friend Austin posted this except from the preface that C.S. Lewis wrote to Paradise Lost.
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 connection 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.
This is great on several different levels, so I wanted to save it here. It informs my recent foray into Anglican worship in the past month and why some parts feel uncomfortable to me (or others!) when it seems like they shouldn’t be.
It also makes me realize that I said my line about “solemnity” totally wrong when I played Theseus in A Midsummer Night’s Dream last year. If only I had known!
For in the temple by and by with us
These couples shall eternally be knit:
And, for the morning now is something worn,
Our purposed hunting shall be set aside.
Away with us to Athens; three and three,
We’ll hold a feast in great solemnity.
Because, in my head, “solemn” only ever meant something like “grave”, I couldn’t bring myself to say this line in anything but an over-serious manner. It should have been more joyful. More feast, less fast. Sometimes worship, even in heavy formality, should be the same thing.