Feast of the Epiphany: The worst time of year for such a journey

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

Along the Camino de Santiago, April 2014

It is not commended to stand ‘gazing up into heaven’ too long; not on Christ himself ascending, much less on his star. For [the Magi] sat not still gazing on the star. Their vidimus begat venimus; their seeing made them come, come a great journey.

— Lancelot Andrewes, sermon for Christmas Day, 1622[i]

 

When T. S. Eliot wrote his great Epiphany poem, “Journey of the Magi,”[ii] he borrowed freely from a Nativity sermon preached in 1622 by the English bishop, Lancelot Andrewes:

A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’

Andrewes, who oversaw the translation of the King James Bible, had a gift for elegantly expressive language, and Eliot altered the original only slightly to make the first lines of his poem:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’

The liturgical and theological focus of today’s Feast of the Epiphany is the universal reach of the Light of the World. The three Magi, coming from faraway places to do homage to the Christ Child, signify that whatever was revealed in Bethlehem was not confined to a single culture, language, or tradition. The babe in the manger would ultimately spark recognition in every longing heart.

But Eliot’s particular focus is on the psychology and spirituality of the Magi themselves, or at least the one whose voice speaks the poem. He recites the complaints common to pilgrims: bad roads, bad weather, bad food, unpleasant companions, inhospitable strangers, and the homesick yearning for one’s own bed. He wonders whether the journey might be ‘all folly.’

The bleak desert crossing resounds with haunting echoes of The Waste Land, heightening the relief we feel when the traveler finally comes to “a temperate valley … smelling of vegetation.” But instead of the sweet, unblemished beatitude of a Nativity scene, the Magus is baffled by a series of disparate sights whose meanings are still in the future: vine branches, empty wine-skins, pieces of silver, three trees on a hill, the pale horse of the Apocalypse.

As for the actual moment of arrival, of seeing the long-sought Epiphany, it is described with the utmost reticence, as though words must fail before such a mystery:

… it was (you may say) satisfactory.

Then what? The Magi go back home, to the world they knew,

But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.

Whatever Bethlehem had shown them, nothing in their lives would ever, could ever, be the same. This holy Birth had also brought a kind of death: the ‘old dispensation,’ whatever the Magi had settled for up to now, could no longer stand. The world of the past – erring, broken, lost, in love with the wrong thing – was being swept away. Behold, I make all things new.

In Andrewes 1622 sermon, he played nicely upon the Latin verbs for having seen (vidimus) and having come (venimus). What the Magi saw made them come. ‘Their vidimus begat venimus.’ But in our own day, says the preacher, we are apt to hold ourselves back, and resist the journey of transformation:

And we, what should we have done? Sure these men of the East will rise in judgment against the men of the West, that is with us, and their faith against ours in this point. . . . Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.

I am well acquainted with such spiritual procrastination. It is a practice not so easy to shed. We do prefer our comfort zones. Or as Andrewes put it, ‘We love to make no great haste.’

And yet, despite our best evasions, there may come a time when we find ourselves on a strange and arduous journey into that Place where everything is changed. Whether we choose the journey, or the journey chooses us, doesn’t really matter. In either case, once we have encountered the Epiphany, we will be ‘no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation.’

And then what?

 

[i] Andrewes’ complete sermon may be found here.

[ii] “Journey of the Magi,” T. S. Eliot: Collected Poems 1909-1962 (London: Faber and Faber, Ltd., 1974), 99

Brief prologue for the Nativity

Apse mosaic, Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, Murano, Venezia (12th century)

Apse mosaic, Basilica dei Santi Maria e Donato, Murano, Venezia (12th century)

Dear readers, in these last hours before the Feast of the Nativity, let me wish you all a very Merry Christmas. Thank you for your interest in what happens here, and for your thoughtful reading and supportive comments. I am grateful for your visits. May the twelve days of Christmas bring you much joy and blessing.

In lieu of a post today, I offer these three passages as prologue to Christmas Eve:

Today the Virgin is on her way to the cave where she will give birth in a manner beyond understanding to the Word who is, in all eternity. Rejoice, therefore, universe, when you hear it heralded: with the angels and shepherds, glorify the Holy One who chose to be seen as a new-born babe, while remaining God in all eternity.

— Preparation of the Nativity, Orthodox liturgy

“I suppose they try to make you believe an awful lot of nonsense?” “Is it nonsense? I wish it were. It sometimes sounds terribly sensible to me.” “But my dear Sebastian, you can’t seriously believe it all.” “Can’t I?” “I mean about Christmas and the star and the three kings and the ox and the ass.” “Oh yes, I believe that. It’s a lovely idea.” “But you can’t believe things because they’re a lovely idea.” “But I do. That’s how I believe.”

— Evelyn Waugh, Brideshead Revisited

 

I am the blossom pressed in a book,
found again after two hundred years…

I am the maker, the lover, and the keeper…

When the young girl who starves
sits down to a table
she will sit beside me…

I am food on the prisoner’s plate…

I am water rushing to the wellhead,
filling the pitcher until it spills…

I am the patient gardener
of the dry and weedy garden…

I am the stone step,
the latch, and the working hinge…

I am the heart, contracted by joy…
the longest hair, white
before the rest…

I am there in the basket of fruit
presented to the widow…

I am the musk rose opening
unattended, the fern on the boggy summit…

I am the one whose love
overcomes you, already with you
when you think to call my name…

— Jane Kenyon, “Briefly It Enters, and Briefly Speaks”

 

Related post: How Can This Be?

The Angel of Possibility

Harold Lloyd clock

My times are in your hand; deliver me.  (Psalm 31:15)

“Let me be the first to wish you a happy and blessed 1984.” This first salutation of the New Year was given, two minutes after midnight, by Bishop Desmond Tutu to several hundred Episcopal college students and campus ministers gathered at a snowy retreat center in the Rocky Mountains. He was preaching at a eucharist begun in the final moments of 1983. The gospel reading, spanning the stroke of midnight, accompanied our entry into the year of Orwellian dread, 1984. Then the bishop’s genial greeting at the start of his homily broke the fatalistic spell cast by the 1949 novel. Orwell’s terrible future had not come to pass. Instead, a man stood before us speaking eloquently and authentically about hope and possibility. A few weeks later he would win the Nobel Peace Prize. The God of history is yet capable of surprise.

But it remains an act of faith to believe this in earnest. Walter Benjamin, a German thinker in the darkest of times, gave a chilling description in 1940 of the “angel of history,” who can see nothing but the terrible past as he is swept backward into the future:

His eyes are staring, his mouth is open, his wings are spread. This is how one pictures the angel of history. His face is turned toward the past. Where we perceive a chain of events, he sees one single catastrophe, which keeps piling wreckage upon wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistibly propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. This storm is what we call progress. [i]

As we contemplate the wreckage of 2014, we might well share Benjamin’s despair. But there is another angel, the angel of possibility, who knows better. This angel says: Do not be afraid. Whatever twists and turns the story may take, it is in the end a story of life, not death.

And every New Year’s Eve, we ritually renew our faith in that story. There is an element of carnival this night, as we throw off the tyranny of good order for a bit of wild excess, declaring independence from the way things are in the name of things to come. But the night’s underlying theme is not chaos but renewal, as expressed in the traditional English carol:

The old year now away is fled, the new year it is entered…
Now, like the snake, your skin cast off… and so let the year begin.

This festival of rebirth, ringing out the old, ringing in the new, reflects an abiding human rhythm. Whether it’s every morning or every December 31st, we bid farewell to our flawed efforts and bad habits, resolving to do better this time around. Taken in isolation, New Year’s Eve has a whiff of doubt if not desperation. We know that the midnight noise and kisses will soon fade into the hangovers and broken resolutions of January’s new morning.

But New Year’s Day is also the eighth day of Christmas, the festival of Incarnation. What wants to be born is not a project of our own making, doomed to wither in the wintry blast of time. The Babe of Bethlehem is not the cartoon baby draped in the banner of “2015,” deposing the old man of “2014” in a melancholy preview of its own ultimate fate 365 days hence.

The holy Child is the Lord of the Dance “that will never, never die.” Yes, this new person will share our mortal condition; he will live and die as one of us. But in so doing he will accomplish what we can never do on our own. He will make our own stories part of the divine Dance. He will guide our own steps into the way of peace.

People often fuss about whether Christmas is pagan or Christian, secular or sacred. But the whole point of Christmas is that it is now impossible to tell the two apart. Ever since “the great angel-blinding Light” shrank “His blaze, to shine in a poor shepherd’s eye,”[ii] what George Herbert termed “Heaven in ordinarie”[iii] is the way this Dance goes. When the Christmas festival fades like Scrooge’s transformative dream, we will all return to habitual place and ordinary time. But if we have paid any attention at all, nothing will be quite the same again: neither ourselves, nor the world, nor the flow of time.

God with us. This changes everything.

On this last day of the year I rose early and went outside to see the stars. Orion, winter’s dominant constellation, had already left the stage. Leo, who rules the western sky on spring evenings, now roared in his place. To gaze on the night sky before dawn is to behold the future. Standing in the cold of winter, I looked upon the constellations of spring. And to complicate the metaphor, the starlight itself was a message from the distant past.

Time is a mysterious gift. Past, present and future keep changing partners in the everlasting whirl of the Dance. Breathless, we do our best to keep up. As W. H. Auden put it, “if there when grace dances, I should dance.”[iv]

The poet also wrote perhaps the best New Year’s Eve line of all, which I commend to you with my wishes for a most happy and blessed 2015:

Time is our choice
of How to love
and Why.[v]

[i] Walter Benjamin, Theses on the Philosophy of History, q. in Hugh Rayment Pickard, The Myths of Time: From Saint Augustine to American Beauty (London: Darton, Longman and Todd Ltd, 2004), 75

[ii] Richard Crashaw, “Satan’s Sight of the Nativity,” in The Roads From Bethlehem: Christmas Literature from Writers Ancient and Modern, ed. Pegram Johnson III and Edna M. Troiano (Louisville, KY: Westminster/John Knox Press, 1993) 148

[iii] George Herbert, “Prayer I”, George Herbert: The Country Parson & The Temple, ed. John N. Wall, Jr. (Mahwah, NJ: Paulist Press, 1981)

[iv] W.H. Auden, “Whitsunday in Kirchstetten,” Collected Poems, ed. Edward Mendelson (New York: Random House, 1976), 559

[v] “For the Time Being: A Christmas Oratorio,” Collected Poems p. 297. This remarkable work, a must-read for the Christmas season, was performed live before the New Year’s Eve eucharist mentioned at the beginning of this post. Auden reminds us that, once we have seen the Child of Incarnation, our challenge is to redeem the “Time Being” from insignificance.

How can this be?

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

Cathedral Films producer James K. Friedrich on the set of Child of Bethlehem (1940)

My mother Elaine, pregnant with her firstborn child Marilyn, rode to Bethlehem on a donkey (in 1936 around Jerusalem, cars weren’t safe – they attracted gunfire). My father, the Rev. James K. Friedrich, made biblical films, including several on the birth of Jesus. In Holy Night (1949), I was a shepherd boy at the manger, with a stupefied look on my face from the blinding lights behind the camera. But no one could top my sister Martha, who played the baby Jesus in Child of Bethlehem (1940). You could say the Nativity story runs in our family. Even the Episcopal parish church of my childhood was a converted stable.

The thing about Christmas, though, is that everyone gets to be in it. By virtue of the Incarnation, our human nature, our human stories, have become the place where God chooses to dwell. Meister Eckhart put this claim most vividly in the fourteenth century:

“There is only one birth – and this birth takes place in the being and in the ground and core of the soul…Not only is the Son of the heavenly Creator born in this darkness – but you too are born there as a child of the same heavenly Creator. and the Creator extends this same power to you out of the divine maternity bed located in the Godhead to eternally give birth.”

Of course I have been reminded by women friends that only a male could find the sublime in a labor lasting for eternity. But Eckhart’s image makes us uneasy in other ways, for in these disturbing times it may be hard to imagine ourselves as worthy vessels for divinity. Everywhere we turn, we see human life devalued and held in contempt. The poor, the weak, the wounded are marginalized and forgotten. Abuse, violence, cruelty and self-loathing are rampant. Overt racism is making a comeback. Even torture has its shameless defenders.

But Christmas tells a counter-story, about a God who remembers the glory for which we were made, who yearns to speak the word of Love in the vocabulary of human flesh. The seventeenth-century metaphysical poet Henry Vaughan expressed his astonishment at this fact in a memorable line:

Brave worms, and Earth! that thus could have
A God enclosed within your Cell…

Oh, we are brave worms indeed, to believe our frail flesh made for the Incarnation, for the union of time and eternity, finite and infinite, flesh and Word. “God became human,” said St. Athanasius, “in order that humans might become godlike.” And St. Paul told the Corinthians that “all of us, with our unveiled faces like mirrors reflecting the glory of the Lord, are being transformed into the image we reflect in brighter and brighter glory.” (II Cor. 3:18)

In the face of such a wonder, we find ourselves repeating Mary’s old question: “How can this be?” And the best answer I know was given by the medieval mystic, Mechthild of Magdeburg: “Insofar as we love compassion and practice it steadfastly, to that extent do we resemble the heavenly Creator who practices these things ceaselessly in us.”

As we kneel before the Mystery this night, may we know how beloved of God we mortals are, and how very much the Glory wants to be born in us.

To you, dear readers, I wish the merriest and holiest of Christmastides.
God bless us every one!