January 5, 2014
Home By Another Road
Matthew 2: 1-12
A person once bought a cemetery plot and a lawn chair, and then took a week of vacation to sit on the chair at the plot. He did it because he wanted to see life from the point of view of his death and his death from the point of view of his life. Yes, it sounds extreme but it does give one perspective.
Ignatian spiritual directors do something similar when they invite people in their care to imagine thinking backward from their dying moment to a decision or choice that they are about to make: If you were looking back from the end of your life, would that decision or choice be what you believe God would want for your life?
The Epiphany text invites us to ask about the meaning of the “light of God’s revelation” for our lives. Maybe, we are still making New Year’s resolutions or contemplating directions, decisions, choices about life so it is a good time to pause and ask, “How can the “appearing of God’s light” help me, guide me, even point me down another road?”
The Epiphany season, when most of our country lies deep in winter, is a good time for contemplation. Epiphany means “the appearing of God.” We look for light on those dark nights, as the Magi did in the story from Matthew, to guide us. What will the journey ahead be like? Will we travel the same paths or take another road home? Do we have a choice? What do we do with our choices? These are some of my questions, what about you?
I ask these questions as our Christmas season draws to a close. For many, it closed on December 25th but for us, who observe Western Christian traditions, Christmas is a season of twelve days. Our Orthodox friends from the Eastern Christian traditions, mark the birth and baptism of Christ at one time. This year, we pray for our Orthodox sisters and brothers in Christ who prepare (according to the Gregorian calendar) for their “Christmas” celebration on or near Tuesday, January 7.
Why is it important to know the history of our celebrations? Many times, telling story gives us new insight and understanding about the world we live in today. The story, is the recalling by Matthew’s gospel, of the childhood of Jesus. Not much is mentioned about the birth of Jesus in Matthew; there is a brief reference. More relevant, is Matthew’s telling of the story and how it relates to the perceived fulfillment of prophecy of what the child will bring to the world. Listen to the text from Isaiah and expect to meet the Magi and to hear the intention of the “good news” of Christ’s birth being for Jews and Gentiles alike.
Isaiah 60: 1-6;
The people wanted to know what would lie ahead for their future just as we, sometimes, want to know. Life can be full of surprises, unexpected twists and turns, so we ask how to prepare? The answer in scripture is that we prepare by always trusting that God will be with us and show us the way. We are to look for the “light” as the ancient people looked at their night sky and see in the light, as they did, as a sign of God’s presence.
This does not mean we are naive in our following of the light; it means we let light be shed on the path ahead. The challenge may be for us to pay attention to the road signs that God would have us to see and take another road “home” if that is needed. In other words, look at life with a new perspective and new reality.
Don’t just let “life” happen to you; be active in making good choices and decisions with what you have and know. This new road may determine whether we grow or stagnate, whether we find a deeper relationship with God or whether we drift away. Will your life of faith be an exciting pilgrimage or an exhausting struggle or dull treadmill? Do we have a choice? Do we stop and think about our choices?
If we were to look at life from the end of the journey, what would we see? One of my favorite poems to read on Epiphany is The Journey of the Magi by T S Eliot. It is not an easy poem to read or to understand but that is the richness of poetry; we ask how it relates to our beliefs, our hopes, our dreams for our lives? How does it relate the struggles we have with birth of the new in us and death to the old in us? We read and contemplate:
'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.'
And the camels galled, sorefooted, 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 arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might 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.
As we can see, TS Eliot was a lover of imagery. He draws us into his own depressed stage of life, his own seeking of re-affirmation from his faith. Maybe, that is how you are feeling. Here, Eliot is not only talking about the sacred journey of seeing the birth of Christ, but a closer, inner journey within all who search for something. The universal message is that our struggle can bring new life. The birth of the new and death of old inhibitions can bring out the best in us. Challenging the “status quo” (the alien people clutching their gods) moves us to find another way home, another way to face our fears and know that we are not alone. These are turning points for growth in the Spirit!
Epiphany is a good time to ask if we have paused along the way to evaluate our lives from the end of life’s journey. Scripture and most literature is all about help us look back, learning from the experiences of others. And, so, it seems that the “magi” on their journey in the story, when threatened my Herod, came up with a Plan B. They knew, after meeting this special family under threat, that they wanted to find another way home. So, do we have the Plan B?
I have been enjoying the personal story of our Hi Dong Chai. Phyllis and Hi Dong graciously gave me the book he published last year, Shattered by Wars. In the introduction, we meet Hi Dong’s mother who becomes the source of strength and inspiration throughout the book. She does not expect to have another child. In fact, she believes herself to be too old to birth another baby and is ready to have an end to this part of her life. BUT, that is not to be.
A beautiful baby boy (our own Hi Dong) is born to this family. He is described as a child whose head is too big for his body. Who will this child be? He is also described as a baby boy who would bring good fortune to his family and be a shining star in the east. Of course, Hi Dong came into his family’s life and became the center of their love, the shining star in the east. His story is about a painful journey and another road home for his family, trusting in God’s unfailing love to be his foundation for life. Our heart aches with him as he recalls these memories of loss in Shattered by Wars yet our hearts are glad for his ability to share so others may find hope and encouragement to survive their own pain and trials in life.
We hear his story and know it matches much of what may be in our own life stories. We all have our struggles, big ones and small ones. We know that we must face our fears and encounter life as it presents itself. What tests along the way, as our lives unfold, are manageable because we listen to the still small voice of God helping us face whatever is unexpected? Is it possible to hold on to our faith when things do not turn out as we expect?
The message of Christmas is that God is with us, even in the form of a tiny vulnerable child, helping us name our need to be open, vulnerable, and trusting for whatever comes in our lives that is new, challenging or unexpected. God teaches us through ancient stories and beloved poetry to make sense of life by looking at the big picture. The Wise Travelers taught us that sometimes we must go home another way. We must look at life from a different perspective. We must recognize new circles of care that are formed around us. We must rely on God’s mercy for every test along the way and every need for direction.
My prayer is that you will find time to nurture and care for the spiritual life, an essential part of who you are. My hope is that you may find our faith community a place that helps you on the journey to know God and trust God’s light to guide. May the “light” of God’s revelation guide us in this New Year to be all God desires for us to become and may we carry Christmas peace in our words and actions. May we listen, follow the light of God’s presence, and trust that guidance to show us the path toward home, God’s home in us. May God be with you and may the “Light” give you blessing. Amen.