Rev. Thomas, the former General Minister and President of the United Church of Christ, is now a professor and administrator here at CTS. Follow his timely, provocative writings on the issues of our day.
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Back on Your Feet, Camels!
This afternoon (Wednesday) I await an epiphany for tomorrow’s Epiphany post. The blank screen stretches out like the New Year ahead, anticipating words to tell of future events that today can only be the stuff of hopes and dreams, of worries and nightmares. When nothing comes I read a familiar poem, T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi –
A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a 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. . . .
Blame it on the camels, I suppose, this writer’s block that mirrors the long ago journey through cold and forlorn countryside to witness a birth that would bewilder as much as it would bless.
We love Christmas because it promises each year to give us more of what we’ve always wanted. But Epiphany, to the extent that we notice it at all, sends us fleeing into the bleak midwinter before Herod’s advancing wrath, or plunging again into the cold waters of our baptism where dying always precedes rising. There is little to sustain us on these cold January days. The warm glow of the remaining Christmas lights now just looks pathetic, left on for the most part, we suspect, because it just takes too much effort to put the lights away. The unpleasant things deferred until “after the holidays,” now wait for us, mocking confidence and hope, no longer avoidable. The camels, it seems, have it right.
The merchants have succeeded beyond wildest imagination in extending Christmas merriment back well into November. But purveyors of the Gospel have a hard time sustaining Christmas joy forward through the twelve days to Epiphany, let alone beyond. It’s not just the powers that seek to crush the birth like bombers outside the Holy Family’s sanctuaries in today’s Egypt. No, it’s also the quiet weariness and subtle wariness of faithful people like you and me who have seen the star but haven’t quite the resolve to make it to Bethlehem let alone back to our lives transformed and redeemed.
Is that why we face an empty screen or a blank sheet of paper or an empty calendar more apprehensive than excited? The New Year holds challenges for us and for our world that will not be easy or pleasant. Even accomplishment and success will usher in unknowns that could just as easily be disappointing as they are marvelous. Tomorrow will undoubtedly hold joy and love for many, perhaps even for us. But these days only wild and foolish optimists overlook the ominous dimensions that also cloud the future. After all, the Magi brought not just gold for royalty and frankincense for priests, but also myrrh for burials.
All this is true. But it is not the whole truth, perhaps not even the Truth. And today, Epiphany, we see it. A birth that unveils the powers of death and has us returning, the poet says, to our kingdoms, “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation, with an alien people clutching their gods.” God’s epiphany does make us uneasy in this old world, so unlike the way it ought to be. And our complicity haunts us even as our uneasiness persists. The aliens clutching their gods don’t look all that different from us.
Ah, so perhaps that’s what this ennui is all about. Not writer’s block or balky camels or bleak mid-winters or bitter tasks, but a recognition – an epiphany! – that having seen the vision and experienced the birth we’re on the verge of once again settling for so much less, clutching manufactured gods that can do little more than numb and distract. Not boredom with a world recycling itself through one more year, but fear that we might miss living fully in it, embracing the One who has come to bless it. Orthodox Christians may just have it right, blessing the bracing winter waters on Epiphany to awaken us to the promise of Christ’s baptism and of ours, a promise that mocks the old dispensation and its gods and allows us with the Holy Family to elude Herod’s vain and deadly grasp.
So back on your feet, camels! Today is the day to go and see, and having seen, to dare to live in this blessed year, and not just through it.
John H. Thomas