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Wednesday, January 06, 2010

Twelfth Night


If left to my own devices and without the calendar of the church and responsibilities to it, I'd surely be traveling the road to Hell a helluva lot more often than I already do.

I suspect that may be one of the reasons God called me to be a priest: so that I could be a better practicing Christian.

Jack Spong used to jokingly say that the church has it all backwards. When you're born, he said, the church should be made a bishop. As you get older and better at practicing your faith, you should be made a priest. Then, when you're really good, you should be made a deacon.

When - and only when - you are able to demonstrate that you are a True and Faithful Follower of Christ, THEN you could be baptized.

Sometimes - some days like the past day and a half - I think Jack's little joke has more than a just a little ring of truth to it.

Reminds me of the story about a woman who introduced herself to Maya Angelou by saying, "I am a Christian."

Dr. Angelou reportedly raised an eyebrow, looked her in the eye and asked, "Already?"

I try to remind myself of this wisdom: Being Christian is less a state of being and more a journey into becoming. Some of us pay more attention to the road than others.

And so it is that I woke up this morning and ran smack dab into the 12th Day of Christmas. The Feast of the Epiphany. Three Kings' Day: La dia de los reyes magos.

I don't know how it happened, actually, but suddenly, it's here. And, almost gone. As I write this, it is no longer the XII Day of Christmas. It's the 12th Night.

I console myself with the fact that I was taught in seminary that in the Church of England, Christmastide does not end until the Feast of the Presentation - February 2nd - also known as Candlemas.

If you do the math and count the days from the Eve of the Nativity to Candlemas, you'll find that there are forty days.

If you count the days from Ash Wednesday to the Feast of the Resurrection of our Lord - the time known as Lent - you'll find that there are forty days.

If you count the days from the Feast of the Resurrection to the Ascension of our Lord, guess what? Yup! Forty days.

You know, I used to think it was all pretty silly but over the years, I've actually come to love that. I love the balance of the forty days of the Celebration of the Incarnation before the Forty Days in the Wilderness. I love the Forty Days of Eastertide.

There is something wonderful about not limiting a celebration or an event to a one-day, one-time thing. There's something about that, I think, which affirms - and savors - the gift of life.

There is something comforting in the symmetry of the forty days and nights of Noah, and the forty days and nights of Jesus in the Wilderness.

About God's promise to Noah in the sign of the rainbow after the destruction of the earth and God's promise to us of new life after the Crucifixion in the sign of Christ's resurrection and ascension.

There's a lovely sort of solace in the harmonious balance of forty days of Christmastide and the forty days of Lent followed by the forty days of Eastertide.

A season of birth and new life, a season of suffering and death, a season of renewal and joy. All happening around us softly. Unobtrusively.

The liturgy of the church plays like background music to the drama of the changing seasons of our lives, sending us subtle pulses of hope in the rhythm of life.

I've been thinking all day about T.S. Eliot's poem "The Journey of the Magi." As I've read it again, I've come to an even greater appreciation of the symmetry of these forty day cycles.

The way birth and death are not separate realities, but different forms of them.

"Life is changed, not ended," says the 'proper preface' of the Eucharistic prayer for the Burial of the Dead.

I've often wondered if we ought not have a different 'proper preface' at Baptism that reflects that balance. Maybe something like: "For to your faithful people, O Lord, life is a journey, not a destination."

I've always been comforted by the verse in Ruth Duck's hymn that reminds us that "we are a pilgrim people and the journey is our home."

A 'pilgrim people'. . . . .The 'journey is our home'. . . .

The truth of the matter is that I often wander around in the cold, bleak midwinter, searching for the Light.

Too many things to do.

Things done in a rush. Other things left undone.

Too much. Not enough.

Too many broken people looking in the darkness for the promise and hope of healing. Not enough light to sustain the search.

Still, I journey on, trying to be faithful to the path on which I've been placed - or, at least, found myself on and believe I'm where I'm supposed to be. Not out of the woods, but on the path.

I finally arrive, only to find that I can not tarry here, in this place. Forty days is all. Moses had forty years. Noah had forty days. So did Jesus - Christmastide, Lent and Eastertide. And, so do we.

Time to commence - to end one phase of the journey before beginning again.

To experience the birth of insight, which often requires that the old die before moving on again and beginning a new journey.

That can take a while. Forty days will do. It will have to. For now. We can always come back to it. We always do.

We travel from the Light over a manger into the Darkness on a Hill before we can find the Light over a tomb.

When all along, the real journey was within, down deep, through the dark side, into the danger of possibility, to find the spark of the Divine that once ignited our souls and gave birth to our lives.

That journey is not time-bound. It is ongoing and continuous. It's just that, in the church at least, we do it in forty day increments.

There may be some wisdom to that.

Because, being a Christian is less a state of being and more a journey into becoming.

Happy Epiphany!
The Journey of the Magi

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the 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.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins,
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set 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.

T.S. Eliot

4 comments:

Thelema said...

Interesting posts you have, though I think Christianity is dead and will be redeemed and brought to fruition and perfection through Thelema. Check out my blog at http://christianityisdead.wordpress.com/ if you will. Love is the law, love under will. ;)

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Well, I would return the compliment. Your blog certainly contain "interesting posts". We don't agree with each other but find each other's blogs "interesting".

How interesting.

susankay said...

We're using the Eliot poem in our service this Sunday designed by a young member of the church who is also the co-artistic director of a local rep theatre. Also prayers of journeying and one of our older member's tale of her personal journeyings thru "earthquake, flood and fire" We are so blessed to have begun to have young members who bring new passion to our church.

Anonymous said...

Elizabeth,

Lovely. Thanks for sharing.

Francis sirfrATearthlinkETC

To repeat my comment to another blogger, Best wishes for a fulfilling New Year (and skill at artfully dodging whatever's on its way to hitting the fan…)