Some time ago when I was reading A Preface to Paradise Lost by C.S. Lewis, I was struck by his comments on joyful solemnity. He referred to an old word in Middle English, solempne, when describing the quality of epic poetry. He calls it a joyful solemnity and compares it to “a princess led out by a king to dance a minuet, a general officer on a ceremonial parade…all these wear unusual clothes and move with calculated dignity. This does not mean that they are vain, but that they are obedient…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.” (This comes from the third chapter called “Primary Epic.”)
We moderns have trouble with solempne because we live in an egalitarian, slovenly culture where no one likes to “look up” to someone else. To really understand solempne, we need hierarchy. So the Christian has a better chance at understanding this because the most high God is our ultimate reference point.
Lewis again: “This means something different, but not quite different, from modern English solemn. 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 Solempne is the festal which is also the stately and the ceremonial, the proper occasion for 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 ‘solemnity’. To recover it you must think of a court ball, or a coronation, or a victory march, as these things appear to people who 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 wide-spread inferiority complex, that pomp, on the proper occasions, has any connexion with vanity or self-conceit.”
In our day, we still have a few occasions where solempne, or a glimmer of it, is still possible: at weddings, graduations, funerals, and worship services (where reverence in worship is still prized). A lofty tone without the joy is simply stuffy, and the joy without the lofty tone can be breezy.
We’ve probably all seen solemn events turned breezy, and it is often due to the embarrassment of the participants (not the spectators). They feel too self-conscious and conspicuous, so they act up, and it really can spoil it for everyone else. (Once I saw the father of the bride come down the aisle with a rose between his teeth.) We should look for real opportunities to enjoy ritual and ceremony without looking like a stuffed codfish or a helium balloon.