Come in! Come in!

"If you are a dreamer, come in. If you are a dreamer, a wisher, a liar, a Hope-er, a Pray-er, a Magic Bean buyer; if you're a pretender, come sit by my fire. For we have some flax-golden tales to spin. Come in! Come in!" -- Shel Silverstein

Sunday, January 05, 2020

20 C.M.B.20

Second Sunday in Christmastide - January 5, 2020
Eve of the Epiphany
Christ Episcopal Church, Milford, DE

This is the second Sunday after Christmas. It is also the Eve of the Feast of the Epiphany – the time when the three wise men came to pay homage to the newborn Jesus. It can also mean a manifestation of divine or supernatural being. In secular use, epiphany has come to mean having a moment of sudden revelation or insight. 

I’d like you to hold those three definitions in your mind for a moment before I go on.

When I was a child, this day was every bit as important as Christmas Day. In my Roman Catholic Portuguese American family, we kept Christ in Christmas and we kept the exchange of presents on the Feast of the Epiphany. And, what a feast it was! There were lots of special food and desserts.

The Feast of the Epiphany was ‘dia dos Reis’ (day of the kings) my grandmother would always bake us a Bolo Rei (‘King cake’) that had a large hole in the center, so that it resembled a crown, and was covered with crystallized and dried fruit and sugared nuts which made them look like gems in a crown. 

And, the best part – there was always either a bean (or, in more affluent times, a silver coin or toy) inside. Whoever found the bean or the hidden silver coin or toy was the Reigning Monarch for the Day and got to use the Blessed Chalk (more on this in a minute).

I have a very clear childhood memory of the priest in church, dressed in white vestments, blessing the Epiphany Water (which recalls the miracle of the Baptism of Jesus and the Miracle at Cana when Jesus turned water into wine), frankincense and gold (two of the gifts of the Magi) and chalk. 

Yes, chalk. 

Every family took home a piece of chalk so that the one who found the hidden silver in the King Cake got to write the first initial of each of the three wise men “Caspar, Melchior and Balthazar” over the doors of the church and our homes. 

The secret was that the initials “C.M.B.” also stood for the Latin phrase Christus mansionem benedicat, which translates “May Christ bless this house.”

I have a basket of chalk for you near the Nativity scene. Each family may each take one and then write on the lintel of your door the first two digits of the New Year, followed by C.M.B and then the last two digits of the new year. So, this year, you will write 20 C.M.B. 20.  You’ll notice that I wrote that on the top of the door of the church.

Oh, in my grandmother’s house, we would have exchanged some presents on December 25th but the Epiphany was when we got special presents. The tricycle or bicycle we thought Santa had forgotten. The special EZ Bake Oven which baked small cakes by the heat of a light bulb. A special party dress or black patent leather shoes that finally went on sale so my parents could actually afford it.

This ritual seemed quite odd to the rest of the neighborhood where I lived. They just didn’t understand. Most of them had already thrown out their Christmas tree and taken down all the holiday decorations. But, at my childhood home of 241 Renaud Street, Fall River, MA, there was
unbridled excitement and surprise and great joy.

They saw a very strange ritual that was extravagant and wasteful. Didn’t we know that this is America? We do things differently here. We saw it as another way to make manifest God’s generosity and celebrate all the surprising ways God is present in our lives. 

To tell the truth, we actually felt sorry for our neighbors. They could judge us and look down on us if they wanted. We didn’t care. We just thought that they had no idea what they were missing.

This morning’s gospel story from St. Matthew is the one appointed for The Feast of the Epiphany but it’s also an option for today. There are several different perspectives of the birth of Jesus contained right here in this one story.

First, there is Herod, who hears from some “wise men” who have come to Jerusalem from the East that they are following a star, hoping that it will lead them to the newborn King of the Jews. 

The very same thing that brought great anticipation and excitement to these wise men struck fear in Herod’s heart – and, we are told, in the hearts of all of Jerusalem as well.

We can only wonder what the new parents thought of all the commotion their infant child was causing. What might it mean that three men of wisdom from the East (where, apparently, all wise men come), traveled from afar to pay homage to their child? Why did they bring expensive gifts?

At some point, it must have ‘dawned on them’ – as we like to say when someone has an epiphany – that what the angel had said separately to both of them about the nature of this conception and birth was connected to this royal visit with lavish presents of gold (a symbol of royalty), frankincense (a natural gum or resin used as incense and symbol of deity) and myrrh (a natural gum or resin which was used as a medicine; it was also used as an embalming oil and symbol of death).

I love the Season of the Epiphany and I love Epiphany stories. I want to leave you with one of my favorites:

I was a newly ordained priest at my first call as Chaplain at University of Lowell, in Lowell, MA. One of the first mission projects I created was to establish a weekly Eucharist at the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center. I had carefully trained a handful of students in how to lead worship and, together, we had decided that two of them would come with me to the Center, on a rotating basis.

The third floor of the Center was a 'locked unit' - pretty much a human waste basket for all those people who had been released from psychiatric facilities - where they would stay for a few weeks, be released to the streets for a few weeks and then, readmitted again after a brief stopover at the Lowell Police Station and the City Jail for some obtuse, vague charge as 'disturbing the peace'.

I had secured permission to provide a service of Holy Communion, as it would be advertised, making sure the staff knew that I would be bringing in bread (or, hosts, if need be) and wine.

"Nope," they said, "can't bring in anything - not hosts, not bread - from the outside. Especially not wine."

"Okay," I said, "Can you provide me with a few slices of bread and some grape juice?"

"No bread," they said, "We had a 'suicide-by-stuffing-bread' last year. No bread on the ward. And, no peanut butter. That's even worse."

"Okay," I said, "No problem with the peanut butter. How about some saltine crackers and some grape juice?"

"Deal," they said, "We keep them in packages of two - no 'stuffing' - and you can just open up as many packages as you need."

Imagine my surprise when I appeared for that first service and found, waiting for me, some graham crackers and grapefruit juice.

"It's all we had," they said without apology, adding, "It's the end of the month. Supplies are low."

In I went, to the locked "Recreation Room". I heard the door lock behind me and realized that I was alone in the room with two terrified students and about 25 people who were in all sort and manner of 'altered states' of consciousness.

People were walking around nervously, pacing, smoking, muttering to themselves, occasionally shouting out obscenities.

I set the table, yelled out what was about to happen, and asked people to take their seats.

No one did.

I started anyway - said a few, abbreviated opening words, one of the students read the first lesson, the other led the psalm. I went right to the gospel and then said a few words about it.

To my amazement, some of the folks actually sat down and were listening to me. The room was not exactly quiet, but the din had certainly decreased a few decibels and was now a dull buzz.

As I started to say the Eucharistic Prayer, one woman in the front - Helen, I'll never forget her - spoke up.  Helen's eyes looked like the last 20 or 30 years of her life had witnessed some pretty rough roads. Makeup clung to the deep wrinkles and lines in her face, her eyelids were a bright blue with a crooked line of mascara outlining them, and her lips were a misshapen bright cherry red.

She looked like a tragic clown in a very painfully human circus in this "Recreational Room".

"Hey, are you allowed to do that? I mean, being a woman and all," she asked in a gravelly voice.

"Yes," I assured her, "I am an ordained Episcopal Priest."

"Yeah, sure you are" she said, taking a drag from her cigarette, "and I’m the Queen of Sheba. Well, I can't take communion. Divorced, you know."

"Sure you can," I said, "Everyone is welcome at the Lord's Table."

She looked at the oblong utility table where I had set out the starched, white corporal, and had the shiny silver paten and chalice, raised an eyebrow of suspicion, shrugged her shoulders, and lit another cigarette from the one she had almost finished.

I got through the Eucharistic Prayer and marveled as most of the people in the room seemed to be paying close attention to what I was doing. Perhaps a memory from childhood or an earlier day was awakened, and they recognized this as a holy moment.

Even after the words of institution, the mood in the room remained solemn. As I prepared to distribute communion, Helen called out, "Hey, shouldn't we be singing something?"

"Sure," I said, "Why don't you lead us in singing one of your favorite hymns?" Oh, do be careful what you ask for. I asked her to sing. And so, she did.

She leaned back her head, closed her eyes and started singing in the most reverent tones I've ever heard, "She'll be comin' 'round the mountain when she comes. She'll be comin' 'round the mountain when she comes. . . ."

By the third verse, about a dozen or so people joined her. "She'll be driving six white horses, she'll be drivin' six white horses (big finish) WHEN. SHE. COOOMMMES!!"

You know what? In that moment, when the absurd met reality, and the profane intersected with the sacred, I knew that Jesus was already there, in that locked Recreational Room, on the third floor of the locked ward of the Solomon Carter Mental Health Center, in Lowell, MA.

And, I had this epiphany. Jesus was fully present to us, but not just in the graham crackers and grapefruit juice. I had already figured that out. My epiphany was this: We hadn’t brought Jesus to church. We had only just brought the church to Jesus.

As we end Christmastide and celebrate 12th Night, we begin the Season of Epiphany. Keep your heart and your mind open to possibility. I know. These are very scary times. We seem perpetually perched on uncertainty. We’re psychically exhausted. More and more, the birds of war seem to be gathering and circling round. It has been a long time since this nation has been so divided. Our strength a nation has always been in our unity. These are anxious days and restless nights.

Surprise and anticipation are expensive commodities in the face of fear and anxiety. And yet, these are the lessons of the Nativity of Jesus. These are the gifts of the Season of the Epiphany.

An observation made by a clergy colleague in NJ brought back a memory of an episode of that classic ‘70s program, "All in the Family”. 

Edith and Archie were attending one of Edith's high school reunions. Edith meets an old classmate who over the years had become excessively obese. They have a delightful conversation, catching up and remembering old times.

Later on, she remarked to Archie about the classmate, "Ain't he a beautiful person?" Archie of course had a different opinion and in a disgusted way, says, "Edith, you're a pip! You and I look at the same guy, you see a beautiful person and I see a blimp."  

Edith responds, "Yeah, ain't that too bad."

It would be too bad – a real shame – if you went through the entire Epiphany Season without one surprise – without finding a bean or a coin in your Epiphany King Cake or met a Helen or found yourself in an unsuspecting secular place –  and didn’t see the possibility of Jesus. 

You just may miss seeing the beautiful person in the one others had dismissed as useless. And, on every level, that would be quite an epiphany.           


No comments: