Today is Christmas Day in the Orthodox Christian Church, which is a good reminder to us that almost 2/3 of the world’s Christians do things differently than we do. The date of the Orthodox Christmas–usually January 7–is based on the older Julian calendar, not the Gregorian calendar which most of the West uses. Many in Orthodox communities fast in the days leading up to Christmas, usually excluding meat and dairy products and eating only things like nuts and fresh dried fruits, Lenten bread and vegetables. Then, Christmas Day is a feast day shared with family and friends, without the commercialization and emphasis on gift-gifting. “The day is a time of reflection, inner thoughts and healing in many eastern European countries,” says one source. [timeanddate.com] Such a different way to look at Christmas.
The Magi were from the East too and probably Zoroastrian, trusting in the ultimate victory of light over darkness. They studied the stars, searching for wisdom and guidance in the heavens, and discerned the call of a particular star signifying an auspicious birth.
A cold coming we had of it, [T. S. Eliot begins his poem, “Journey of the Magi”]
Just the worst time of year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow…
(This could be the description of morning walks with Luna in recent days!)
They had to see what the star was pointing to. Can you imagine enduring such a journey to follow a star?
While she was living and working in Haiti, the Rev. Elizabeth Myers Boulton learned some Haitian proverbs, her favorite of which was, “If you want to see, you have to look twice.” To illustrate, she tells the story of her friend Stephanie’s wedding day–
It had all the usual trappings: a beautiful dress, flowers, hair, makeup, family flown in from out of town, and the rest.
Everything had been prepared; everything was ready. Her father was by her side, ready to walk her down the aisle. The doors to the chapel were opened – and Stephanie saw her soon-to-be-husband at the end of the long aisle.
He was standing there smiling at her, full of love on top of love, and she froze. For a split second she was paralyzed, unable to move, because all she could think about was that someday, he was going to die.
She couldn’t love him, couldn’t marry her Kevin, because one day he was going to die.
Then she looked twice, like that Haitian proverb, and she saw things more clearly.
This is what she saw: the presence of death, inevitable as it may be, makes love all the more urgent, all the more powerful, all the more committed, all the more vulnerable, all the more tender. And so this is what she did: she took a deep breath, stepped into the sanctuary, and began the most wonderful, beautiful walk of her life.
[SALT Project, Epiphany meditation, Jan. 2018]
Myers Boulton said she had her own Epiphany moment one Christmas during the singing of “Joy to the World.” She was in a big Episcopal church, with brass and tympani playing away, when she saw the Magi setting out on their journey, following the star, that stopped over “City Soleil,” “City of the Sun,” “City of Light,” which is the name of the largest slum not only in Haiti but in all the western hemisphere, home to half a million people. The wise men picked their way through the streets running with sewage and full of debris still left over from earthquakes and hurricanes, until they came to the place where the Child was. They were overwhelmed by the poverty, by the massive forces of oppression, but then they looked twice, as the Haitian proverb says, and they saw Mary and the child, quietly nursing, and they saw God , the God of heaven and earth, creator of snowy owls and iguana, they saw God, siding with the poor, turning the world upside down. “They knew he would suffer and die,” Myers Boulton writes, “but that only made their love for him more urgent, more powerful, more committed, more vulnerable, more tender….They took a deep breath, and entered the place where the Child was.” (Ibid.)
In Epiphany, we are reminded that we find God’s presence in unexpected places, and often, if we really want to see, we have to look twice. The Magi expected to find God in the Temple in Jerusalem, but then, as now, the rich and powerful had a vested interest in keeping the order of things just the way they were, just the way they are–they want to remain rich and powerful, even if that means stacking the deck against the poor, ordering the massacre of all the boys under the age of 2, destroying species and the planet if need be. And so the Magi were warned in a dream not to return to the Temple or the White House or the halls of Congress or the board rooms, but rather to go home by another road.
Sometimes you get to choose your alternative route, other times it’s thrust upon you. “Life is what happens when you’ve made other plans,” someone has said. The ability to adjust, to be open to new travel plans, to look again – to look twice, or three times – at what is around you is key to being able to thrive and experience the abundant life that Jesus talked about, rather than simply becoming bitter and disillusioned. To be able to look into the faces of those we love and know also that they will someday die can open us up to loving them even more deeply, tenderly, urgently. I have been thinking of my visit a year ago with my Mom. I knew it would be my last week with her, and it was excruciatingly beautiful. I look back on those days with a clarity and gratitude that I might have lost had I simply denied her condition and only allowed myself to think that she would bounce back. “To really see, you have to look twice.”
The Magi, in T.S. Eliot’s poem, had a similar experience–
All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set this down,
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death
But had thought they were different; this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
In many ways, we still live in the old dispensation, with people clutching their gods, and a government which seems to have lost sight of its true North, its guiding star. And yet, if we look twice, the light shines in the darkness and the darkness has not overcome it. There are still people of honor and compassion, of wisdom and courage, acting with kindness and generosity every day, in every corner of the planet. In barrios and slums like City Soleil, in villages and towns, in city hospitals and backyard sheds, God is being born in our midst.
“To really see you have to look twice.” This looks like ordinary bread and juice, but when we look again, look twice, we recognize it as the body and blood of Christ, the bread of life, the cup of blessing, and we see that we are all one loaf, one cup. In fact, when we look twice, the whole world is one loaf, one cup. We have wisdom to learn from travelers from the east, God’s presence is in the poorest, unlikeliest of places, even within us.
So let us take this bread and drink this cup, taking in Christ’s body and blood to become our body and blood. And then let us follow the star of God’s true north to our journey’s end.
Amen, and amen.
Rev. Mary H. Lee-Clark