January 8, 2017
This always feels like a strange time of year, this season after Christmas.
It’s only been two weeks, but it feels like forever since we gathered in here on Christmas Eve, candles lighting up our faces as we sang Silent Night. You could almost feel the angel chorus joining us.
But now the world around us feels grayer. All the planning and wrapping and cooking and gifting is done. The pageant costumes are folded carefully in their plastic tubs. Christmas trees line the streets in lumps. The decorations have mostly returned to basements and attics. If you’re like me, your New Years resolutions have already been broken more times than kept. We’re back to work and commuting and homework and school-lunch making. It’s a different kind of busy-ness.
We’re back to regular time. The time when it’s harder to feel God with us. It’s harder to believe that the mystery of back then is still a part of now. After Christmas is said and done, it always feels strange and anti-climactic to me. But this part of the story, though perhaps not as miraculous and angel-strewn, is an important time too. Because, truth be told, this in-between regular time is where we mostly make our home.
W.H. Auden describes this post-Christmas season perfectly in his poem For the Time Being:
“To those who have seen The Christ Child, however dimly, however incredulously, The Time Being is, in a sense, the most trying time of all. …Remembering the stable where for once in our lives everything became a You and nothing was an It. … But in the meantime, there are bills to be paid, machines to keep in repair, Irregular verbs to learn, the Time Being to redeem from insignificance.”
How do we redeem our Time Being from insignficance? How do we find sacredness in the mundane? How do we find God-with-us, Emmanuel, still with us even in the midst of the ordinary?
It’s a quest worthy of our best efforts. And we aren’t alone on this journey.
Today our particular forebears are the magi. They usually get lumped into the pageant so you may feel like you’ve already seen them come and go. They provide, after all, a chance for glittery costumes, the beautiful cinematic star, and a few more speaking lines. And so we cobble today’s story from Matthew’s Gospel together with the rest of Jesus’ birth story from Luke’s Gospel. But in reality, like us, the magi likely arrived late to the party. Like us, they probably missed the angels’ singing, the shepherds’ gathering. For all we know they came when Jesus was crawling around, the manger scene and the joyful celestial tidings a distant memory.
And so we can learn from these sojourners from the East. We can learn a lot. Especially during this Time Being.
Like, how to pay attention. The magi noticed that star. They didn’t get something magnificent and startling like a chorus of angels, or even something bold and directed like a prophecy. They got a star, one in a million. These magi were out doing what they did - star gazing. Gleaning information from the night sky - weather patterns, the right time to travel or plant crops. And in that natural and ordinary undertaking, something signaled to them. A sign, seemingly unnoticed by anyone else. And they paid attention.
How do we pay attention, how do we open our eyes to the potential of God’s presence around us, even in the midst of our ordinary doing and being?
But the magi didn’t stop with noticing. If they had, we wouldn’t include them in the story. They acted. Even though they had no real idea what the star meant, if anything, or where it would lead, if anywhere, they were willing to set out on a journey, to go exploring. They felt a stirring, a calling, and so they started off. They didn’t have it all perfectly planned out first. In fact, it must have felt wildly inconvenient. To everyone around them, it must have looked completely nonsensical. And yet, the magi head out, traveling the path that they think is before them with no assurance of results. They act.
Where might we be called to act in some way, to journey out beyond our comfort zone, to try something new, or to try a new way of being in whatever old place we find ourselves?
But the magi’s goal isn’t immediately obtained with that first action. They continue discerning along the way, always open to new possibilities. When the magi hit snags - and they do hit snags: their run in with the tyrannical King Herod; a clear sense that the palace, the city of Jerusalem, is not where they should be - they continue journeying in a new direction. Even when it leads them to a small, fairly irrelevant little town, and to a dirty, fairly smelly little manger. Even when it leads them to a baby of no earthly consequence. They remain open.
How can we keep our hearts and minds open to the possibility of a new path when we have grown comfortable or attached or complacent right where we are?
And the magi give gifts. They don’t just arrive on the scene, take it all in, and leave without giving something of themselves. They rejoice and they kneel and they worship and they give gold, frankincense and myrrh.
How might we lend our joy, our reverence, our gifts to the world around us?
And then the magi return home. It’s a different path home; it almost always is. We can rarely return exactly the same way. But they arrive again in the familiar, in the Time Being, with people that think they know them, and situations that push their buttons, and work that feels mundane. But they bring back with them all that they have seen and felt and experienced. Maybe these will become new gifts they can offer. Because even though they return to their Time Being, that doesn’t make it any less full of possibilities and surprises. Who will the magi be now, knowing what they know? How will they live now, having seen what they’ve seen? What will matter to them now, having come so close to the presence of God?
For us too, after the glitter and adventure of Christmas we return back to where we were. So what will we do now? Will we stow God-with-us in our tubs of Christmas decorations to open as a pleasant, but not particularly life-changing, surprise next December? Or will we pay attention, act, remain open, and share our gifts as we live into our Time Being?