Written by: Bro. Brian Poulin
Saturday after Epiphany
We’ve been here before. In so many ways.
Here we are once more at the beginning of a new year that brings new fears to accompany our new hopes. Calendars are thinning out again, COVID precautions have taken on renewed urgency… but this time the threat feels more familiar. I know that all of our lives have been dramatically changed and that many of us have suffered catastrophic loss. At the same time, life carries on in so many of the mundane activities and circumstances that were nonetheless dramatically snatched from us in the height of lockdown almost two years ago.
I know that some people still consider me young. Nonetheless, I am old enough that I can’t help but see patterns when I look at the events swirling around our world. Does life start to look cyclical to us all at one point or another?
This Advent I spent some time thinking about the ancient Jews living under foreign rule as they waited for a messiah. They languished under the Egyptians and then the Babylonians and the Greeks and the Romans, among others. In the same breath, one might mention Jewish suffering under so-called Christendom. And there were period of liberation and times of desolation. Spring, summer, autumn, winter, spring.
For those of us drawn to the narrative of progress, the idea of a definitive Messiah is irresistibly compelling—a disrupting and benevolent force that ushers in a new age.
At the beginning of each of the last three years, I have taken on a scriptural figure to serve as a spiritual touchstone throughout the following twelve months. Each one tends to be a mixture of inspiration and cautionary tale, as I suppose we all are. Jacob, David, and then Job. Sometimes these figures loomed large in my prayer life and at other times they faded from my thought. This year, I wasn’t really feeling it, and thought it was time to retire this practice. But then, unbidden, it came to me.
The Magi have taken on a new importance in my spiritual reflection over the last several weeks. The key question they seek to answer in their story is where to look for salvation, where to find God. Like so many of us, they turn first to the place of power, privilege, and prestige. If they are wise though, it is because they recognized that Herod’s palace was empty of the promises they longed to see fulfilled. Instead, they found God among the humble and neglected. I have often heard reflections emphasize the fact that the Magi returned home by another way than they had come. How could they not? Their lives had been transformed by an encounter with the Divine.
I am rarely too impressed by the Herodian palaces around me. At times my jaded cynicism may be serving me well. At other times, I simply see more impressive treasure in the hidden elsewheres. Whenever I become too attached to success or recognition for their own sake however, don’t I build Herod’s palace in my heart? And don’t we see so much of our religious and political history wrapped up in the same dynamic? Time and again, we fall in worship at Herod’s feet when we should instead be looking to the poor and helpless. Even those of us who should know better fall repeatedly back into this folly. Maybe one reason Dorothy Day didn’t want to be recognized as a saint was because she saw the toxicity of celebrity culture before anybody else had coined the concept.
What would it look like if our Church, our government, or our society could break Herod’s thrall? But the spirit of liberation always seems so short-lived before we fasten on our chains once more. We needed God to break into our history in order to escape this cycle. We still do. That’s what Christmas is about.
So yes, we’ve been here before, and the next stop on our crazy train may look pretty familiar as well. Maybe though, we can choose to live as if God really has made a difference in our lives and in this world. I’m lucky to have many people in my life who model this very possibility for me. They make it real.
This month’s ‘ear candy’ and ‘brain food’ are both rather Christmassy… which again is fitting, for those of us who celebrate the Christmas season from the end of Advent until the Baptism of the Lord (December 9 this year). Enjoy what may be your last gasp of the holidays!
Ear Candy: “Child of the Poor” performed by Brad Whittle
Brain Food: “Christmas is Weird” by Esau McCaulley
Come back on the first Saturday of next month for a new post!