While many have written about the uplifting nature of the inauguration, the deep satisfaction of finally having an adult in charge, and the end of the national nightmare, what surprised me was how teary I became at the elegant use of ritual. What can’t be said in words can often speak more eloquently in gesture and symbol when they are carefully used.
Catholics are sticklers for ritual, which can sometimes become rigid and calcified. What we saw in DC last week, however, was the best: dignified, graceful, accessible. It began with the memorial service Tuesday evening. What brilliant use of landmarks that landscape the imagination: the Lincoln Memorial, reflecting pool, Jefferson Memorial beyond it—all at sunset, with lights to represent the 400,000 dead. Biden wisely kept it simple. A man who knows grief—Beau’s death was only 5 years ago—the president-elect could speak authentically to grieving people. Many were surprised nothing like this had been done before, no prayer nor official mention of the dead. That’s the abyss created by leadership obsessed with itself.
But this was different: the haunting music, followed by the bells of the National Cathedral tolling 400 times, and bells across the nation ringing: in Dallas, New York, Charlestown, San Francisco. We can coordinate when we try—and what a profound, wordless symbol of national mourning.
Despite the constraints imposed by the pandemic and tight security, the inauguration ceremony was masterfully orchestrated and beautifully enacted. Contrast the crisp, disciplined presentation of colors, the soul-stirring music with the deadly violence of the mob waving Confederate and Nazi flags (dark symbols) just two weeks before. I suspect I wasn’t the only one with misty eyes when Kamala Harris entered, escorted by the capitol security guard who had directed the angry thugs away from the legislators. And the unguarded play of emotions across her face as she took the oath—no one needed to repeat that she was making history in that moment.
A slight indication of how moving it was: my son and I, in a condo at Lake Tahoe, gazing out at the magnificent Sierra Nevadas, miles from the action in DC, stood for the national anthem and pledge of allegiance, hands over hearts. So did mothers and daughters, dressed up, watching t.v.s near Berkeley where Harris grew up. Our national rituals can be that compelling. And when the president’s address quotes St. Augustine and includes a moment of silent prayer, it represents the spiritual roots of the country at its finest.
Worn by the long virus, appalled by Trump’s consistent cruelty, plagued by insidious racism, embarrassed internationally, disempowered by lockdown, all people wanted was a little uplift. And they got it: gentle, affirming tones instead of haranguing bigotry, the parallelism of Biden’s speech and cadence of Gorman’s poem. It enabled us to be proud of who we were again, lift our chins a notch higher, knowing we belonged to something better than the last four years.
Wednesday brought that surge we experience when our anthem plays for the Olympic gold medalist. As a child, I’d belt out the Chevrolet ad: “America’s the greatest land of all.” Then disillusionment set in. But briefly this week, I could almost believe it again.