Thursday, December 15, 2005

Frango Mints and the Reign of God: addenda

There was a lot more that I wanted to say in my post for Hopeful Imagination, but no more needed to be said. It was long enough as it was. But I thought I might append a couple of thoughts here just to expand on the topics a bit.

First, the memories evoked by Frango Mints for me, right now, are a source not just of nostalgic memory, but grief. Chicago was for decades if not centuries the confectionery capital of America. This was in large part due to its location, and the ease of shipping goods to Chicago for processing, and the ease of shipping finished goods to the rest of the nation. For decades, many ofthe major makers of chocolate were based in Chicago (one of the major exceptions being the one based in Hershey, Pennsylvania). Driving through certain Chicago neighbourhoods was a feast of sweet chocolatey smells.

This has begun to change as firms have relocated, in part to save money on labour, Chicago being a strongly unionised city. Not least among these losses is the manufacture of Frango Mints, which used to be made on site in Marshall Field's downtown store. They have been moved somewhere else, Pennsylvania I think. And so what was once something unique and local to Chicago has been relocated.

But it doesn't stop there. Marshall Field's, long a Chicago fixture, which was founded and flourished in the Chicago area, has been sold. The associations between Chicago and Field's go deep, especially at Christmas, when the windows at the State Street store downtown became a lively destination themselves for families with children to peer at and enjoy. It was a firm practice for many families to look at the windows, do their Christmas shopping, and enjoy lunch in the justly famous Walnut Room at Field's.

More precisely, Field's has been sold again. It has long been held by companies outside of the Chicago-based Field family. But most recently it has been sold to Macy's, based in -- gulp-- New York. And they are completing the process begun when Field's was first sold, by changing the name and identity from Marshall Field's to Macy's. And I think that is a loss, as it continues the process by which the (Western, modern) world becames entirely the same. Eventually if everything is only Wal-Mart and Macy's (or Tesco and Marks & Spencer), then we will have no sense of actually being somewhere. We will be everywhere, which is nowhere. It impoverishes our human geography.

And soon, although the physical stores will be there, and they will no doubt vend chocolates, Marshall Field's and Frango Mints will only be a memory for me.

The other thing I wanted to add in was that the sacraments, chiefly the eucharist and baptism, are key means by which we develop this memory in advance. In baptism, we see the Spirit resting on another body, expanding God's adopted family; we see cleansing and renewal; we see the beginning of a life with God and his people which holds the promise of God's reign. In eucharist, we encounter the Risen Lord; we are nourished for our journey; our sins are forgiven; we come to the table reconciled with our sisters and brothers; and feasting together we anticipate the coming banquet with our Lord when all is made new. We see all this and a great deal more, as these sacraments -- in reflecting God who works through them -- are found to be without boundary, and are found to be of endless, inviting depth. And through these paradigmatic acts of God, we are equipped to see God at work in the world around us.

But it seems to me that the sacraments especially -- and I take the prominence of material things, tokens like bread, wine, oil, water and fire, as well as the Spirit in the sacrament to be utterly crucial -- are means of forming these memories in advance. The ways in which our memories and imaginations are stimulated with the rich associations of Christmases past are sensory through and through. The smell of candles or baking or sap-laden pine trees; the sight of lights in the darkness, Advent wreaths, or Christmas ornaments; the taste of holiday biscuits, mulled cider, or the Christmas feast; the sound of carols and other Christmas music; the fond embrace of loved ones or the heft of a gift in one's hands: all of these and many more have the power to transport us. That is to say, these things are more than the things themselves.

Smelling the sap from a pine tree, feeling the cold, seeing lights strung across a lot, is not just about going out to buy a Christmas tree for this year. It is this year's activity tied together with all the previous years' memories which situate the present activity. For me, it is going with my Dad to the lot; picking out a tree; letting the salesman keep the change since it was a fundraiser for the Lion's Club; working together to get it back in the car and home; wrestling it into the house; and letting him do his annual job of getting it situated in the stand in the living room. In other words, it was about relationships, judgement, generosity, cooperation, slight comic relief, and recognising and encouraging special proficiencies. I admit this is a lot for what might just seem like schlepping out to buy a tree! But I think a lot of life is like this, and part of Christmas' gift to us is that it lets us see this in greater relief, that things are more than just the things themselves, they are signs which point to the past and present, which allow us to bring the past into the present and in doing that allow us to move into the future.*

The sacraments function in this same way, but the story/history that they make present is not merely past, but also future -- in fact mostly future. By referring to the life of Jesus Christ and also pointing ahead to the coming age, they allow us to make those present in the present, in at least partial ways.

* Of course, this can also be a malevolent tendency, too, as (say) abusive pasts come into the present. A fuller account of this dynamic might also refer to criteria of practical judgement for what is good and bad history to be brought into the present -- although of course the criteria themselves arise from the particular story/history and are not (I think) universalisable.


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