From a Regular Person Such as Yourself
by Pamela Hodgson
(This essay appeared as the cover article in the January 1994 issue of Cathedral Tidings. This essay is copyright 1994 by Pamela Hodgson. All rights reserved.)
The title may sound facetious; I assure you it's not. While "from the editor" might have been an accurate heading, I'm writing here not as the editor of Tidings, but rather as a member of the congregation--the point being that this space, like this church, belongs every bit as much to each of us as it does to our clergy.
Title aside, the topic is Epiphany. The dictionary has two definitions: the first is the Christian feast celebrating the manifestation of the divine nature of Jesus; the second is a comprehension or perception of reality through a sudden intuitive realization. I think the two can be combined, and Epiphany defined as a crystallization of our faith.
Definitions aside, here's the story: twelve days after the baby is born, wise men turn up with gifts, then blow out of town before Herod's men can follow them to kill the child, whom Herod perceives as competition; angels clue the shepherds in to the child's identity; and Mary and Joseph, being good parents, take the baby into the temple for all the traditional rituals (including, by the way, the sacrifice of two turtle doves--but no partridge in a pear tree) where again, his significance is stressed. Meanwhile, you take down the Christmas tree and realize as a stray pine needle stabs your bare heel that no matter what you do, your house will never quite be free of this tree.
But as the scent of Christmas is plucked out of the carpet and swept out of the house along with the torn wrappings, life goes on. The miracle of birth is over now, and the baby comes home. Cradled in the crook of one elbow, the tiny bundle is so light that but for the gentle tickling against the hairs on your arm, you barely know it's there. It cries, and you reach around with fingertips to tap the diaper lightly, and find it isn't wet. The velvet-soft cheek grazes your chest; tiny jaws clamp onto a nipple with a strength that makes you gasp, small mouth yanking and pulling and sucking sustenance. Moments later the rumpled face tilts up to you, and sour-scented breath brushes over you as the baby howls again. You look around helplessly for someone--but there's no one, you're on your own now--and hear yourself say plaintively, "What do you want? I don't know what you want from me." And at that moment it is clear that your life has been changed in a way that, whatever else may happen, can never be rescinded. Time is measured differently: there is before, and there is after.
In Biblical times, barrenness was a sign of disgrace--people who didn't reproduce were wicked or inadequate (sprinkle a pinch of that in your pipe and see if the odor isn't a tad familiar, even today). Consequently, receiving a baby was a divine gift. And yet, having her baby in a stable, fleeing murderous Herod, could hardly have been young Mary's idea of good fortune. But ever faithful, she does everything creed and tradition demand of her, and in the process is warned: "This child is destined for the falling and rising of many in Israel, and to be a sign that will be opposed so that the inner thoughts of many will be revealed--and a sword will pierce your own soul too."
How could it not? She's been handed the awesome responsibility not only of preserving and shaping a young life, but of a life that can shape the world. With her joy and fortune, responsibility and pain.
And at Epiphany, we too are handed that life. Something is subtly different now, thanks to a birth. What that baby born in the city of David is crying for us to do isn't crisply stated in black and white. The magnitude of the responsibility is overwhelming.
But there's no going back. We're counting the years AD now. We can only go forward, armed with the knowledge of the incredible gift of this child, and what that gift has the power to grow into. The responsibility rests with each of us; the church, the clergy, the community, the government, whoever, can't make it happen without us. It's ours to nourish and nurture.
Here at St. James, I think we work hard to nourish and nurture what we have been given. Certainly, at Christmas, we have shown our generosity, and maybe made some lives subtly better. Now we're creeping through the long, gray, cold expanse of winter, and it might feel like time to give up, and take a rest. But there's no time for that. The Christ child is depending on us.
Nobody said it would be easy, this Epiphany thing. But the rewards can be immense.