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Sunday, January 06, 2019

Epiphany: "Is it you again?"

Artist: Emily Balivet
A Sermon for The Feast of the Epiphany
Christ Episcopal Church,  Milford, DE
January 6, 2019

Happy Feast of the Epiphany!

I want to tell this little story and leave it right here for now. I’ll come back to it, but I just want to leave it here before I go on.

In her book Dakota: A Spiritual Geography, Kathleen Norris tells a story that is said to come from a Russian Orthodox monastery. A seasoned monk, long accustomed to the ancient tradition of monastic hospitality that welcomes all guests as Christ, says to a young monk, “I have finally learned to accept people as they are. Whatever they are in the world, a prostitute, a prime minister, it is all the same to me. But sometimes,” the monk continues, “I see a stranger coming up the road and I say, “Oh, Jesus Christ, is it you again?”

So, I’ll leave that story there and begin with a confession: I think I love the Season of The Epiphany even more than I do Christmas – and, I LOVES me some Christmas!

You might know that in some parts of the world, Epiphany is also celebrated as Women's Christmas. Originating in Ireland, where it is known as Nollaig na mBan, Women's Christmas began as a day when the women, who often carried the domestic responsibilities all year, took Epiphany as an occasion to enjoy a bit of respite and celebrate together at the end of the holidays.

Sounds like an idea whose time has come again, right ladies?

In my family, The Feast of the Epiphany was when my family exchanged Christmas gifts. Indeed, my own family has continued this tradition. We are all meeting later this month – children, grandchildren, cousins, aunts and uncles – to exchange gifts and have a fabulous meal together.

When I was a child, we got one small gift, which we were allowed to open right after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. We got one more gift and the contents of our Christmas Stockings on Christmas morning. But, the Big Gift Exchange was saved for the Feast of the Epiphany.

Now, we weren’t Irish, but Epiphany did seem to be Women’s Christmas in our family.

My grandfather and uncles would prepare the Epiphany feast, which usually began with a hearty bowl of Portuguese kale soup with linguica, a spicy sausage. 

This was followed by a big pan of Baked Cod, smothered in onions, garlic and tomatoes and cooked with carrots and turnips and potatoes from my grandfather’s garden. It was served with baskets of my grandmother’s freshly baked bread – crusty on the outside, soft and yummy on the inside and thickly slathered with butter. 

(You don’t think I got these hips from eating salad and drinking Diet Coke do you?)

Oh, and the joke in my family was that the dessert table was so large it had its own Zip Code.

And then, my favorite part: After the dishes were done, after everyone was feeling fat and happy after a good meal, after the all the presents were opened, after everyone’s glass or cup was filled, we would retire to the parlor (remember those?) and my grandmother would bring out her Portuguese guitar and sing fados – a Portuguese folk song with a characteristically mournful tune and lyrics which speak of the sea, or life of the poor, and infused with melancholia, resignation and fate.

And then, my grandmother would tell her Epiphany story. It began with her decision, as a 15 year old girl, the youngest and only girl with six older brothers, who had just lost her mother. 

She took a look around and saw her father and her brothers and understood exactly what her future looked like. 

So, she convinced her father to allow her to spend the summer with some of her aunts, her mother’s sisters, who had moved to America and were working as domestics on Beacon Hill in Boston.

Saudade (1899), by Almeida Júnior
She promised to return home at the end of the summer, but had absolutely no intention of keeping that promise. 

She packed a small bag with a few changes of clothes and a few bits of some food, slung her guitar on her back and boarded a ship which carried her into Boston Harbor. She never returned to Portugal.

For me, her story was every bit as good and exciting as the story of the Three Wise Men – Kings, we are told – reportedly from the East, following only a star and a story. 

It was a rumor of a story, really, that was so amazing that it brought a hope that burned so bright it formed its own light.

My grandmother, like so many before her and since – even up to and including this very moment – risked a great deal, sacrificed people and places she loved, following only the light of a story – a rumor of a story, really – of a land which was filled with hope and possibility and potential.

She had a hard life, a difficult life. She had twenty pregnancies and twenty-two children, nine of whom lived to adulthood – two of whom are alive today. She lived through two World Wars and a Great Depression. 

Her brothers lived in poverty in Portugal because there was no work. Her husband and sons and daughters at least had jobs – hard work – in the many mills and factories of New England.

However, finding that disparity, inequality, and corporate corruption know no national boundaries, my aunts and uncles committed themselves to becoming successful labor union organizers. 

When there were strikes and negotiations were stalled, my grandmother would make big pots of soup and great loaves of bread and I would go with her as we fed the men – and, eventually, their families – who were fighting for their part in the great story of America.  

As difficult as her life was, however, she never really forgot the story of promise that brought her here. She never lost sight of the star that guided the journey she made. 

Although she often felt melancholy for what she left behind, she never regretted her decision.  Every election day she would get dressed in her Sunday clothes and walk to the polling place, taking a few of her grandchildren along by the hand. “I couldn’t do this in Portugal,” she’d say, “but in America . . ah, in America. . . even I have a say in the governement.”

My grandmother used the Feast of the Epiphany as a way to remind her children and her children’s children about following their own star, of dreaming dreams that others might scoff as impossible, to create your own ending to your own story, even if it means getting to home a different way or creating a new home in the new place where you found yourself.

And, she said, “Don’t judge a book by its cover.” That was her mantra, because some people looked at her and saw a young immigrant woman with no skills who couldn’t even speak the language. 

And, they looked at her children and her grandchildren as ‘less than’ because our skin was darker and our hair curlier and our food looked and smelled different.

On The Epiphany, she would remind us, “The rest of the world saw a helpless baby in a manger, but the Wise Men were wise because they saw beyond what was right in front of them. They saw the bright light of hope. They saw the shining star of promise. They saw unconditional love who only wanted love. They saw Jesus, and, in seeing Jesus, they were able to see God in a new way.”

Which brings me back to that story I began with. It’s the lesson the old monk learned. He said whether prostitute or prime minister, he had learned to accept people as they are. Our baptismal covenant asks us to promise to, “respect the dignity of every human being.”

We also promise to “seek and serve the Christ in others.” Because, you know, the story isn’t over. It hasn’t ended. Not yet. God continues to be with us and interact with us. The story of God and the people of God is still being written. Sacred stories are still being lived out and told. The wise still seek Jesus and follow his Light.

As that great modern theologian, Gracie Burns, once said, “Never put a period where God has placed a comma.”

This is why we continue to tell the story, year after year. We live the mystery of our faith: Christ has died. Christ is risen. Christ will come again. We continue to tell the story to remind us that when Christ returns, he may not look or sound or live or even pray the way we expect.

Wise Women Also Came - Jan Richardson
But, if you are wise, you, too, will take the risk of following a star – even if it’s only the dim light of an idea or an intuition or a hunch. 

You, too, will know the wisdom of following a story – the rumor of a story, really – in order to be part of it. 

You, too, will follow a dream, even if it means that, at the end, you have to go home by a different route – or, perhaps build a new home where you find yourself.

If you are wise, you will be faithful to your baptismal vows to ‘seek and serve Christ in every person’ – even if that takes the rest of your life to achieve. That faithfulness to a promise will enable you to greet the stranger in your midst with the same exclamation that old Russian Orthodox Monk used. 

"Jesus Christ, is it you, again?"

And, no doubt, the Three Wise Men exclaimed it first, as they knelt in front of that manger, long, long ago, in a country far, far away:  “Jesus Christ, is it you?”



Lindy said...

This is so rich and textured. You always show me a side of life that I don't know... your immigrant past... and place it beside the life of Christ which I long to know. Thank you for this.

Alla Bozarth said...

Oh, Elizabeth, thank you for this precious story gift to carry us through the unfolding, maturing revelations and graces of Epiphany. It is a love gift to the Christ Child inside us all.

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you Linda. You know I value your opinion as a writer

Elizabeth Kaeton said...

Thank you, Alla! I’m deeply honored.